August 16, 2007

The Distant Election Becomes the Big News on Talk Shows

PEJ Talk Show Index August 5 - 10, 2007

At the rate the 2008 campaign is moving, one may wonder if the nation’s talk show hosts are going to run out of things to say about it before primary season arrives. With more than 15 months to go until the next presidential election, the campaign dominated the world of news talk last week.

And there was no shortage of talking points. In a week loaded with campaign events – from the Democrats meeting with bloggers at the Yearly Kos Convention, to debates in both parties to the Iowa Straw for the GOP – talk show hosts zeroed in on everything from candidate gaffes, to the compressed primary schedule, to the media’s role in the race.

In all, it turned out to be the biggest week of the year for campaign ’08 in the Talk Universe. The far-away campaign made up 35% of the airtime in talk as measured by PEJ’s Talk Show Index for August 5- 10.

No other topic even came close. The next biggest story, the Utah mine collapse that left six miners trapped captured 11% of the airtime. After that no other topic got more than 5%.

What campaign story thread were the talkers interested in?

For MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson, the topic was the power of labor in the electoral process leading into Tuesday’s Democrats AFL-CIO debate held at Chicago’s Soldier Field. He wondered if unions were turning the Democratic candidates against free trade and agreements like NAFTA. “It strikes me as a huge departure from the legacy of Clinton for some of these new candidates, or most of them, to be running against, in effect, NAFTA,” Carlson said.

Syndicated liberal radio talker Ed Schultz discussed the campaign by taking issue with comments from Republican candidate Mitt Romney about why Romney’s sons were foregoing service in Iraq even as their father gives speeches supporting the troop surge there. “[Romney] also went on to add that ‘one of the ways my sons are showing support for the nation is by helping get me elected.’ Well, nothing self-serving about that,” Schultz said sarcastically.

Meanwhile, over on Fox, the O’Reilly Factor used the swell of campaign events as an opportunity to talk about…The Factor, and more broadly Fox News. In O’Reilly’s view, the Democratic candidates, particularly Hillary Clinton, were trying to score points by beating on the news channel. “But what does that get her? This is by far and away the top-rated cable news outlet and we’re growing while the other are disintegrating,” O’Reilly promoed, “why do they want to do that? Don’t they understand that might come back and bite them in the you-know-where?”

The PEJ Talk Index measures talk shows from two media—cable news and radio. The campaign stood out even more on radio. No other story rose above 6% of the talk time measured. That story was domestic terrorism.

The mine story was almost nonexistent on talk radio, receiving less than 1% of airtime. The reasons for that are impossible to know for sure. Unlike the Minnesota bridge collapse the week before, the mine story lacks the dimension of whether Americans generally are safe as they go about their lives. There is also perhaps less of a finger pointing at government with the mine story. The mine is privately owned. The roads and bridges we travel over are public.

Also mostly absent in the talk universe last week was the rollercoaster ride of the stock market. The ups and downs combined with a sagging housing market had some economists expressing worry and pushed the Federal Reserve to pump money into markets to stabilize them. Yet, the bouncing market, which fell almost 400 points on August 9 before regaining ground the next day, registered about 1% of total air time in the Talk Index.

PEJ’s Talk Show Index, released each week, is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics are most frequently dissected and discussed in the media universe of talk and opinion—a segment of the media that spans across both prime time cable and radio. (See About the Talk Show Index.) PEJ’s Talk Show Index includes seven prime time cable shows and five radio talk hosts and is a subset of our News Coverage Index.

With the campaign filling the air time, which candidate was the big winner last week? That depended on who was doing the handicapping. The fact that Hillary Clinton seemed to break further out of the Democratic pack, however, was on several people’s minds.

Liberal radio host Rhandi Rhodes had especially warm feelings for Hillary, and the candidate’s oft-replayed “I’m your girl” comment from the Democrats Tuesday night debate. The day after the event, Rhodes began her show with Paula Abdul’s “Forever Your Girl” and played Clinton’s words from the debate over the music. “Could I be happier? No,” Rhodes said. “Big score. And it’s great because it’s not like any other candidate can steal that line from her.”

Hardball’s Chris Matthews was intrigued by Clinton’s recently discovered girl power in his debate wrap-up show on MSNBC. “If you want someone to take on the right wing, I’m your girl. She’s post feminist. She can say girl now. It’s so fascinating.”

Matthews, indeed, was so fascinated he came back to the line three nights later on Friday’s Hardball. “She might be channeling Hilary Swank here. That is what I think she is up to. I think she wants to be the million dollar baby. And girl is perfect.”

Of course, things didn’t work out so well for Swank’s character in “Million Dollar Baby,” who died, and conservative talker Sean Hannity saw Clinton’s campaign possibly headed for a similar outcome.

On his Friday show Hannity, was willing to christen Clinton the Democratic nominee, and lay out the GOP’s fight plan against her. “Let her be the candidate and let’s have this campaign run on the distinctions and the differences and the ideologies of those people who are weak on terror, weak on border security, weak on energy independence, that want to raise you taxes and nationalize health care,” Hannity said. “Let’s get it on.”

That may not be the way the Clinton campaign would define itself, but it seems likely to be the way the conservative side of radio dial sees things. And listening to those hosts there is there is distinct feeling that they relish a Clinton nomination for the material it would provide them.

From his corner, Rush Limbaugh came out swinging at a different Hillary Clinton – one that was afraid to take a bold stance. On Friday Limbaugh took issue with Clinton’s answer at a candidate forum on gay and lesbian issues. Panelist, and musician, Melissa Etheridge asked Clinton why she wasn’t more of a leader on gay and lesbian issues and Clinton carefully answered that she believed she was, and even though some may believe change wasn’t happening fast enough, Clinton and others were pushing for more .

“Phew,” Limbaugh said sarcastically. “That was bold folks. That was bold. That was Mrs. Clinton at her boldest best, wasn’t it?”

The perils of being the champ – or at least the leading contender. You get a lot of accolades, but you take a lot of punches.

Dante Chinni of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 35%
2. Utah Mine Accident – 11%
3. Iraq Policy Debate – 5%
4. US Domestic Terror Threat – 3%
5. Immigration – 2%
6. Global Warming – 2%
7. Pat Tillman – 2%
8. Minneapolis Bridge Collapse – 2%
9. US Economic Numbers – 2%
10. Newark Murders – 2%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 16%
2. Utah Mine Accident – 13%
3. Minneapolis Bridge Collapse – 6%
4. Events in Iraq – 5%
5. US Domestic Terror Threat – 3%
6. Stocks Drop on August 9th – 3%
7. US Economic Numbers – 3%
8. Barry Bonds Breaks HR Record – 3%
9. Immigration – 2%
10. Iraq Policy Debate – 2%

Click here to read the methodology behind the Talk Show Index.