August 23, 2007

Genius or Villain, Rove is a Worthy Topic for Talk Hosts

PEJ Talk Show Index August 12 - 17, 2007

The comings and goings of White House staff aren’t always a big deal in the world of media Talk Shows, but Bush Administration adviser Karl Rove was no normal staffer. The man often credited with navigating the president through two successful elections was, and is, a lightening rod for controversy. And his announced departure caught the attention of the talkers from both sides of the spectrum in a big way.

For some it was a chance to take stock of the time “the architect” spent in Washington and review his accomplishments. Others saw it as a chance to revisit the political dustups that followed his White House tenure. Still others decided to spin the story forward with a “What now for Karl” theme.

In all Rove’s resignation garnered more than 10% of the week’s talk time as measured by PEJ’s Talk Show Index for August 12-17. That made it the second-biggest talk story of the week behind the campaign for president.

CNN’s Lou Dobbs aired two packages on Rove’s legacy Monday, using Rove as a way to talk about his favorite topic, immigration. Dobbs said that despite Rove’s victories, the adviser’s immigration stance, which Dobb’s called pro-amnesty, hurt his legacy. “[Another] major exception [to Rove’s successes] is the election of 2006 in which the Republicans were swept out of the leadership of both houses and the majority of both houses of Congress,” Dobbs said. “A checkered record at best over the last three or four years for Karl Rove.”

That same night on MSNBC’s Countdown, host Keith Olbermann was having a Rove-a-palooza, devoting the shows first 20 minutes to a full review of the adviser’s time in the White House. The show offered everything from the short-term political perspective to the congressional perspective. The tone, as viewers of accustomed to Olbermann’s strident anti-Administration’s view might expect, was puckish and pleased. “I’ll be on the road behind you here in a little bit,” President Bush said in a clip from that morning’s press conference. “You all leave together, maybe you can get a discount,” Olbermann added in a voiceover.

A kinder assessment of Rove’s time was issued by conservative Pat Buchanan the next day. Subbing on MSNBC for Tucker Carlson, Buchanan wondered whether Rove belonged in the “political hall of fame” and asked what Rove’s resignation would mean to the 2008 campaign.

“Could Rove be more dangerous to Democrats, especially those with their eyes on the Oval Office, from the outside the White House?” Buchanan asked. Maybe, said liberal panelist Bill Press, “Look he’s going to have more time on his hands. He’s going to have less restrictions on his activities. God knows what he’s going to be up to down there.”

The extensive coverage of all-things-Rove and particularly the press’s attention to some of the adviser’s lesser moments, gave conservative Rush Limbaugh a chance to offer a dig at one of his favorite targets: the media. At Rove’s resignation press conference CBS White House correspondent Bill Plante shouted out at Rove and Bush as they walked away, “If he’s so smart, why did you lose Congress?”

Limbaugh offered a snappy reply: “Hey Plante, if you’re so smart how come Katie Couric is doing the Evening News?”

In the media overall last week, PEJ’s News Coverage Index showed no dominant story. In the same way, the Talk Index also showed a more balanced spread of coverage among the top stories than usual.

The 2008 campaign was the week’s biggest talk story, but it still only captured about 15% of the overall talk time PEJ monitored. It was followed by Rove’s resignation at about 11%, the immigration debate at about 7% and the Iraq policy debate at about 7%. The fifth biggest story on talk shows was the shootings of three college students in Newark, New Jersey at 6%.

Together that means the top three stories for the week captured 33% of the total talk time measure. The week before the top story alone (the 2008 campaign) captured 35% of PEJ’s Talk Index.

PEJ’s Talk Show Index, released on Fridays, 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.

Last week, the Rove story, which broke Monday, August 13th, had its big days Monday and Tuesday, when about 89% of the segments aired. Meanwhile, the campaign, again chugged along steadily as a topic almost as big at week’s end as it was at the beginning.

Absent any major campaign-related event, what was the campaign talk about? The hosts seemed most interested in playing whack-a-mole with candidates from the opposite side of the political spectrum, hitting them on any number of issues.

On his Tuesday radio show, for instance, conservative Sean Hannity went after Democratic candidate Barrack Obama for what he perceived as the senator’s attack on U.S. troops. “He’s been heralded in the news as the second coming,” Hannity said and then played a clip from an Obama speech. “So there it is, Barrack Obama claiming our troops are air raiding villages and killing civilians. How many more passes do these Democrats get before we accept that they have nothing but contempt for our armed forces?”

On Monday’s O’Reilly Factor, host Bill O’Reilly focused on a campaign event from the week before – the Democratic forum on gay/lesbian issues – and the fact that almost none of the candidates supports gay marriage. “I think that’s pretty hypocritical, don’t you? If they want to court these people, pardon the pun, they should support the gay marriage thing.”

And showing how far afield hosts went for campaign topics last week, liberal talker Stacy Taylor, sitting in for Randi Rhodes, took a short detour on his show to take a swipe at long-shot Republican candidate Ron Paul. “He’s the guy who can end the war they say,” Taylor said. “Why is it we are supposed to gush and swoon every time a Republican reaches the obvious conclusion that the war in Iraq was wrong from the get go?”

All of which may be true in the eyes of Taylor and his listeners, but when a host decides to devote time to going after a third-tier candidate there is another message coming from the talk universe.

November 2008 is still more than a year away and there are a lot of hours of airtime to fill.

Dante Chinni of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 15%
2. Karl Rove Resigns – 11%
3. Immigration – 7%
4. Iraq Policy Debate – 7%
5. Newark Murders – 6%
6. Utah Mine Accident – 5%
7. Toy Recalls – 4%
8. US Economy – 4%
9. Don Imus – 3%
10. US Domestic Terror Threat – 2%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 8%
2. US Economy – 7%
3. Karl Rove Resigns – 7%
4. Utah Mine Accident – 7%
5. Events in Iraq – 5%
6. US Domestic Terror Threat – 5%
7. Toy Recalls – 4%
8. Hurricanes/Storms – 3%
9. Peru Earthquake – 3%
10. Space Shuttle Endeavour – 3%

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