September 12, 2007

Talk Hosts Sound Off on Craig and Thompson

PEJ Talk Show Index Sept. 2 - 7, 2007

Last week, as Idaho Senator Larry Craig seemed to waver between resigning and fighting for his job, the reception from the nation’s talk hosts on both sides of the political spectrum was largely hostile.

Craig had pleaded guilty after being arrested on June 11 in an airport bathroom by an undercover officer who accused him of trying to solicit sex. And for the commentators and pundit class, the case didn’t break down neatly along ideological lines. Democratic partisans certainly benefited from a veteran GOP lawmaker in trouble, but it was Republican forces who put the most pressure on him to end his Senate career. And it’s likely that many conservatives who otherwise supported Craig were considerably more upset by allegations of homosexual behavior than anti-Craig liberals who tend to have more sympathy for gay rights.

As further evidence of the complexity of the case, talk hosts seemed to come at it from a variety of angles.

On Fox News Channel show Sept. 5, conservative-leaning Bill O’Reilly took the pragmatic angle—Craig as political liability. “This Craig. What is this? Now he might not resign,” wondered O’Reilly with a disgusted look on his face. “What’s the matter with him? If you’re arrested and you plead guilty, you can’t govern as a senator.”

The same day, liberal talk radio host Randi Rhodes saw the scandal as an occasion to accuse Craig’s Republican colleagues as well as the senator himself of behaving hypocritically. “The people who carry the moral mantle, the people that believe in personal freedom, kicked him out of the Senate almost immediately because they found out he does some tea dancin’ in the bathroom,” she said. Rhodes added that Craig himself was “frontrunner phony. He’s in denial. He’s an anti-homosexual homosexual.”

For Ed Schultz, another liberal radio talk host more centrist than Rhodes, the issue was secrecy. “The thing that bothers me the most about the Craig thing is that something happened with law enforcement and it went unreported to the Ethics Committee or Republican leadership. [Craig] shouldn’t have the liberty…to be able to hide an arrest.”

And for his part, Fox News Channel and conservative radio host Sean Hannity seemed genuinely conflicted about whether Craig was villain or victim. “Either he’s the unluckiest guy in the world or he’s leading a double life,” Hannity said. “I can’t determine…I don’t know.”

All told, Craig’s predicament was the third-hottest topic last week. It filled 16% of the airtime on the cable and radio talk shows, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index from Sept. 2-7. That was the same place the Craig scandal finished in the more general News Coverage Index last week. But with so many angles to seize upon and more freedom to vent their opinions, the talk hosts amplified the topic, more than doubling the percentage of newshole filled from 7% in the media overall.

The top talk subject (at 21%) was the 2008 presidential campaign that saw one major candidate—Republican Fred Thompson—officially enter the fray last week. The second-biggest topic, the Iraq policy debate (at 20%) focused on the political maneuvering in advance of Gen. David Petraeus’s eagerly awaited Iraq progress report this week. The Sept. 7 release of a new Osama bin Laden video (7% of the airtime) and immigration issues (also 7%) filled out the top-five topic roster.

The newest presidential contender Fred Thompson didn’t fare so well either last week. After months of signaling his intention to run for the White House in 2008, the former Tennessee senator finally announced his entrance on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” last week. (MSNBC “Hardball” host Chris Matthews observed that Thompson “slow-walked his way into the race for president.”)

Some of the early reviews were even less flattering. Conservative radio host Michael Savage on his Sept. 6 show said flatly, “I’m not excited by Fred Thompson…I don’t know why Fred Thompson is running….I have no faith in Fred Thompson.”

On O’Reilly’s Sept. 5 program, guest commentator Dick Morris noted that Thompson had opted to sit out that night’s Republican debate in New Hampshire. “He’ll go everyplace except a debate,” said Morris. “I think he’s afraid to fight…I think he’s so used to being scripted.”

On “Hardball” that same night, Matthews hauled out a quote from Republican Congressman and Rudy Giuliani supporter Peter King that took aim at Thompson’s hard-boiled district attorney role on NBC’s popular drama “Law & Order.” “Rudy is a real crime fighter,” said King. “Fred Thompson has primarily done it on television.”

A more positive assessment, and an endorsement did come from longtime Republican consultant Mary Matalin. She told “Hannity & Colmes” that she is backing Thompson because “he is a consistent conservative, he is an across-the-board conservative, and he’s a common-sense conservative.”

Finally, Michael Savage demonstrated last week that any topic can become an ideological wedge issue. On his Sept. 6 program, the host was playing a recording of renowned Italian tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, who had died that day. Savage, an obvious fan, was clearly moved by the great tenor’s passing. (His memorial to the singer’s “supernatural voice” made his death the tenth-biggest talk topic at 1%.)

But whether he was self-conscious about playing opera music on his program or thought his listeners might be confused, Savage felt compelled to suggest that liberals would attack him for it: “I’m not trying to be pretentious here…I know what the liberals say about everything. Everything you do they try to mock. What do I care what they do? They’ll die in their own vomit anyway one day. What do I care who they are? They’re unknown, unknown bloggers. Let them die in their own vomit today for all I care.”

The Pavarotti-tribute-turned-anti-liberal-tirade lasted more than a minute before Savage soothed himself by asking to hear a clip of “La boheme.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 21%
2. Iraq Policy Debate – 20%
3. Larry Craig Scandal – 16%
4. bin Laden Video – 7%
5. Immigration – 7%
6. Events in Iraq – 2%
7. US Domestic Terrorism – 2%
8. Global Warming – 1%
9. Toy Recalls – 1%
10. Luciano Pavarotti Dies – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 17%
2. 2008 Campaign – 12%
3. Larry Craig Scandal – 7%
4. Events in Iraq – 5%
5. bin Laden Video – 5%
6. Germany Arrests Terror Suspects – 4%
7. Hurricane Felix – 3%
8. US Domestic Terrorism – 3%
9. Steve Fossett Missing – 2%
10. Missing UK Girl – 2%

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