September 20, 2007

War of Words Over War in Iraq

PEJ Talk Show Index Sept. 9 - 14, 2007

If General David Petraeus’ Iraq progress report triggered fierce partisan battles on Capitol Hill last week, it also generated widely mixed—and some pretty inflammatory—reviews on the talk show airwaves.

Staunch anti-war advocate Keith Olbermann, on his Sept. 10 MSNBC show “Countdown,” dismissed the so-called “Petraeus Report,” declaring that “a majority of Americans assumed going in it was a cheap sales job.”

That same day, conservative radio talker Michael Savage took a distinctly different view. “I watched General Petraeus today and I was proud of him,” said Savage. “And I watched the general take the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune from those slimy, backstabbing, anti-American scum called Democrats.”

As Olbermann pointed out, Petraeus’ Sept. 10 and 11 testimony—which generated more coverage than Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s report on the political climate in Iraq—was the most important visit to Capitol Hill by a military leader since General William Westmoreland delivered his Vietnam assessment 40 years earlier.

Much of that anticipation stemmed from the sense that Petraeus’ testimony might be a pivotal moment in battle over war policy between the Bush White House and Congressional Democrats. At the end of the week, the commentary consensus held that the general had reinforced the status quo and bought more time for the administration’s approach. But even if Petraeus changed few minds in Congress, his appearance gave talk hosts a chance to sound off on the war, loud and clear.

The debate over Iraq lit up the airwaves as the hottest-talk topic last week, accounting for 49% of the cable and radio airtime, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index from Sept. 9-14. That was the most time devoted to the subject in 2007, barely edging out the 48% of the newshole filled by the policy debate on January 7-12, the week when President Bush initially announced the “surge.” Only two stories—the Virginia Tech shooting rampage in the week of April 15-20 (63%) and the firing of talk host Don Imus (61%) during the week of April 8-13—generated more talk conversation than last week’s Iraq showdown.

The argument over Iraq practically silenced every other subject last week. The 2008 presidential campaign was the second-biggest topic at 10%. But even some of that campaign discussion was related to Petraeus’ appearance before Congress. The 9/11 anniversary remembrances finished third at 5%, followed by immigration (4%) and events inside Iraq, which was the fifth-biggest topic at just 2%.

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.

Talk hosts have a variety of methods they can use to make their views known, including using guests as either surrogates for their viewpoint or as debate tackling dummies. But when it came to the debate over Iraq last week, many hosts did the talking themselves with a palpable sense of anger and intensity.

MSNBC “Hardball,” host Chris Matthews unsheathed some biting sarcasm in response to President Bush’s Sept. 13 speech in which he endorsed Petraeus’ recommendations and thanked “the 36 nations who have troops on the ground in Iraq.”

“Let me give you some sense of the other firepower that’s joining us in the field,” declared Matthews as he ticked off a roster of nations and how many troops they had in Iraq: Hungary (15), Japan (5), Latvia (2), Turkey (2), New Zealand (1), Singapore (1) and Canada (1). “Those are our 36 strong allies the President is talking about.”

Liberal radio host Randi Rhodes vented largely at Petraeus. “I am so disgusted with these careerist military guys,” she declared. “Every six months [they say] ‘give me six more months’…I look at Petraeus, I look at Crocker. It’s like a tag team of liars.”

From the other side of the microphone came a vigorous attack on the anti-war forces. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh made the point that Democrats and liberals seemed to be hoping for a U.S. defeat in Iraq.

“For the first time in years, the good news is leaking out, the surge is working,” said Limbaugh. “Our left is starting to lose.”

Conservative compatriot Rich Lowry, the National Review editor subbing for Sean Hannity on Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes,” echoed Limbaugh, asserting that “Democrats seem to be totally uninterested in hearing any good news from Iraq.”

Another log that got tossed on the Iraq bonfire last week was the controversial ad from the liberal group, MoveOn.org, attacking Petraeus as “General Betray Us.” The Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly assailed what he called “a smear advertisement” against the general. But appearing on “Hannity & Colmes,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina ratcheted up the rhetoric in his critique of the ad.

“Taking a man who’s lived his life with honor and integrity and accusing him of sending people to their death because of some unknown political agenda…somebody who would do that should burn in hell,” Graham declared.

The MoveOn.org furor also became part of the talk show conversation about the 2008 presidential race, with some calling for Hillary Clinton to denounce the grassroots organization’s ad.

On Lou Dobbs’ Sept. 14 CNN program, senior political analyst Bill Schneider noted that Republican hopeful Rudy Giuliani—locked in a tightening GOP primary battle—went specifically after Democrat Clinton for her criticism of General Petraeus and “her failure to condemn MoveOn.org.”

Why might Giuliani ignore his GOP opponents to lob a blast at the perceived Democratic frontrunner? As Schneider noted, Giuliani selected a target—Clinton—who is so unpopular with the Republican base that it could help him in the battle with his GOP rivals.

One motive for the Clinton criticism, Schneider added, is that “Rudy Giuliani may feel Fred Thompson breathing down his neck.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 49%
2. 2008 Campaign – 10%
3. September 11 Commemorations – 5%
4. Immigration – 4%
5. Events in Iraq – 2%
6. bin Laden Video – 1%
7. Iran – 1%
8. Larry Craig Scandal – 1%
9. Health Care – 1%
10. Putin Dissolves Russian Government – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 36%
2. Events in Iraq – 6%
3. September 11 Commemorations – 5%
4. 2008 Campaign – 5%
5. Missing UK Girl – 2%
6. Pakistan – 2%
7. Hurricane Humberto – 2%
8. bin Laden Video – 2%
9. US Economy – 2%
10. US Domestic Terrorism – 2%

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