September 27, 2007

Cable Talk Hosts Have a Field Day with O.J.

PEJ Talk Show Index Sept. 16 - 21, 2007

Asked about media interest in O.J. Simpson’s arrest after the sports memorabilia showdown in Las Vegas, Fox News Channel contributor Jane Hall sounded a disapproving note.

“It’s O.J. the sequel,” Hall said on the “O’Reilly Factor.” “It’s pure entertainment. Obviously there’s an appetite for it [but] I’d love us to start looking away.”

On MSNBC, host Dan Abrams seemed a lot more embracing. After anchoring several segments on the Simpson saga, Abrams enthusiastically introduced Kato Kaelin, the old O.J. houseguest and murder trial pseudo-celeb.

“When O.J. does something bad, I would think that’s good for Kato Kaelin,” Abrams ventured. “The good old days Kato, the good old days.”

Whatever one thinks of the coverage of Simpson’s latest brush with the law—which includes charges of kidnapping and assault with a deadline weapon—the media couldn’t resist last week, and the talk media was even more aggressive.

On the same week that the case was the biggest story in the general News Coverage Index, it was an even bigger deal for America’s cable and radio talk hosts. According to PEJ’s Talk Show Index for Sept. 16-21, the topic filled 21% of the talk air time, topping the 2008 Presidential campaign (18%) and the continuing policy debate over Iraq (13%). Rounding out the top-five talk topics were the tasering of a student in Florida (fourth at 6%) and tensions with Iran (6%) sparked, in part, by the New York visit of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

There was a big difference in how the Simpson case played in cable talk versus radio, two variations of the commentariat with differing shadings. With their attraction to celebrity and crime and with an endless roster of legal talking heads to rely on, the cable talk shows in PEJ’s sample devoted almost 140 minutes to the topic last week. (MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson dubbed Simpson “the father of modern cable news.”) But the talk radio hosts—who tend to favor more politically and culturally polarizing subjects—only spent about eight minutes on Simpson. That would seem to suggest that the deep racial divide that was exposed in his 1995 murder trial, has not surfaced as an issue, at least to this point. (The Washington Post published a Sept. 27 poll indicating that the opinion gap about Simpson between whites and blacks is now narrowing noticeably.)

The favorite topic among talk radio hosts last week (and the third-biggest subject on cable talk) was the presidential race. And the conversation focused largely on one of the talkers’ favorite targets/subjects. Between the new health care proposal she unveiled on Sept. 17 and other aspects of her campaign, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton generated more than half the talk segments.

Naturally, the tone was sarcastic or cheering, depending on the political shading of the host.

On his Sept. 17 show, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh went after Clinton, among other ways, by referring to her previous attempt to craft health care policy as First Lady in 1993 as “Hillary-care, national socialized medicine.”

Liberal talker Ed Schultz had a considerably different view, declaring that by igniting a serious conversation, “the Clinton plan is off to a flying start.” Schultz described Clinton’s Sept. 17 speech on health care as “good,” and “detailed” with plenty of “meat.”

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.

The treatment of both the Simpson and presidential campaign stories illustrates a pattern that occurs often in the talk genre. The hosts take several major stories in the general News Coverage Index (O.J. at 13% and the campaign at 9%) and amplify them even further.

Many weeks there are also topics that get more modest play in the general coverage that are seized on by certain hosts—and they often provide insight into how the talk genre functions.

Last week, there were three such examples. Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan’s new memoir “The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World” generated only 1% of the general news coverage and was not among the top-10 stories. But, given the political impact of some of Greenspan’s musings, it was the seventh-biggest talk topic last week at 4%.

Pundits of all stripes jumped on Greenspan’s eye-catching assertion in his book that the war in Iraq was “largely about oil.” (Greenspan later explained he was not saying the administration’s motive for war was oil.)

“‘No blood for oil’ chanted the enemies of war,” said MSNBC’s Chris Matthews as he opened his Sept. 17 “Hardball” show. “Now a major voice declares ‘it was about oil.’’’ Taking a markedly different tack, MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson basically said “so what?”

“I think this war should have been about oil,” he said. “I wish it was about oil. We’d have lower gas prices.”

The news that Dan Rather was suing his former employers at CBS for $70 million was barely a blip on the media radar screen last week, finishing well out of the top-10 story list on the general news index. But during his stint in the anchor chair, Rather sometimes incurred the wrath of conservatives for what they saw as liberal bias. And a key element in his suit was a controversial “60 Minutes II” story alleging favorable treatment of George Bush during his military service. So given that political baggage, Rather was the #10 story (at 3%) on the Talk Show Index with radio hosts particularly interested.

Rush Limbaugh heaped scorn on Rather’s lawsuit, telling his listeners that be it “elected Democrats or drive-by-media, these liberals keep opening the door and bloodying their nose before they can get through the doorway.”

Yet liberal Randi Rhodes lauded Rather’s assertion that he was a victim of CBS’s efforts to appease the Bush administration, declaring that “he makes a really unbelievable case about the interference by corporations and government in the reportage of what we like to think is real news.”

Finally, the video of a University of Florida student being tasered after trying to ask questions of Senator John Kerry received wide circulation in the media last week. But the story was largely treated as a passing curiosity, and, at 2%, failed to make the top-10 list of more general News Coverage Index stories.

Yet in the talk show universe, the taser episode was treated as a civil liberties issue and finished as the fourth-biggest story last week. The incident also seemed to do the impossible—it unified some of the most partisan conservative and liberal voices on the talk radio airwaves.

On her show, Rhodes decried the tasering of a “kid who was exercising his Constitutional rights.” From the right-side of the spectrum, Michael Savage was even more vocal.

Calling the campus police “fascist,” Savage declared that “I don’t want to live in a country where even a left-wing student gets tasered for asking a question…This was outrageous.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. O.J. Simpson – 21%
2. 2008 Campaign – 18%
3. Iraq Policy Debate – 13%
4. Florida Student Tasered – 6%
5. Iran – 6%
6. Immigration – 5%
7. Alan Greenspan's Book – 4%
8. Jena 6 – 4%
9. Events in Iraq – 3%
10. Dan Rather Lawsuit – 3%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. O.J. Simpson – 13%
2. Events in Iraq – 10%
3. 2008 Campaign – 9%
4. Iraq Policy Debate – 5%
5. Jena 6 – 5%
6. US Economy – 5%
7. Michael Mukasey as Attorney General Nominee – 4%
8. Iran – 4%
9. Health Care – 3%
10. Iraq Homefront – 3%

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