October 4, 2007

Talk Hosts Find Themselves on the Firing Line

PEJ Talk Show Index Sept. 23 - 28, 2007

In traditional journalism, one of basic axioms is that the journalist should scrupulously avoid becoming part of the story.

In the talk show genre, the attitude of the host usually is the story. But last week, even that more personal side of talk took on a new twist.

Two of the biggest talk topics were controversies involving things said by hosts themselves–Rush Limbaugh, who has the biggest audience in talk radio according to Talkers Magazine, and Bill O’Reilly, whose Fox News Channel show has consistently garnered the highest ratings in prime-time cable news.

The furor over Limbaugh involved his reference to “phony soldiers” while discussing opposition to the Iraq war. That helped make the Iraq debate the third-biggest talk topic in the talk culture last week as measured by PEJ’s Talk Show Index from Sept. 23-28. It filled 14% of the airtime.

The fallout over O’Reilly involved his visit to a Harlem restaurant, where he seemed pleasantly surprised by the customers’ good behavior. “There wasn’t one person…screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea,” O’Reilly said about the dinner. That was the fourth-biggest talk story at 6%.

The top talk topic last week—as was the case in the more general News Coverage Index—was the U.S. conflict with Iran, a subject largely fueled by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial appearance at Columbia University. It filled 28% of the cable and radio talk newshole. The 2008 presidential campaign, always a favorite subject of talk hosts, was No. 2, filling 20% of the talk time. Rounding out the top-five story list—after the Iraq policy debate and O’Reilly’s restaurant saga—was the immigration debate, way back at 3%.

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.

But it was passion derived from the O’Reilly and Limbaugh comments that stood out last week.

Their sagas are notable in that they highlight many of the spiciest ingredients in the volatile talk show stew—ideology, personality, ego, and good-old fashioned self-promotion. Friend and foe often jump into the pile, and something akin to a free-for-all ensues over the airwaves.

Limbaugh’s remark about “phony soldiers” came at a particularly politically sensitive time in the Iraq war debate. Democrats and liberals were smarting over the recent passage of Congressional resolutions condemning an ad from the liberal group, MoveOn.org, characterizing top Iraq commander General David Petraeus as “General Betray Us.”

In the Sept. 26 phone conversation about anti-war sentiments, a caller said: “They never talk to real soldiers. They like to pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue and spout to the media.” Limbaugh then interrupted, saying, “the phony soldiers.”

Limbaugh’s use of the term “phony soldiers” was attacked as an effort to discredit the troops. Capitol Hill Democrats introduced a measure condemning Limbaugh’s words and Democratic Congressman Steny Hoyer, referring to the MoveOn.org controversy, told The New York Times that “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

Limbaugh’s talk show foes also waded into the fray, with insults flying.

“I see America’s number one drugster with a microphone is out there beatin’ up on our troops,” snapped liberal talk radio host Ed Schultz, referring to Limbaugh’s problems with prescription painkillers. “Is it fair to have a resolution on the Senate floor condemning MoveOn.org, but to allow the king talker to get away with stuff like that? Is that supporting the troops?”

MSNBC’s liberal host Keith Olbermann, also invoking the MoveOn.org controversy, went after the GOP and Limbaugh, who he called “a conservative jack-in-the-box.”

“For some reason, there doesn’t seem to be a…race among Republicans to blast Limbaugh…the way so they happily wrung hands and necks over the MoveOn.org Petraeus advertisement,” he asserted.

Limbaugh was far from silent in his own defense. He called the response to his remarks the “anatomy of a smear.” He also insisted that his reference to “phony soldiers” was aimed at only one man, Jesse MacBeth, a disgraced former soldier who lied about U.S. atrocities in Iraq. After ending the phone call on Sept. 26, Limbaugh then talked about the MacBeth case on the air. But given the sensitive situation, his foes weren’t buying the MacBeth explanation, leaving the conservative host to lament the bias of what he calls “the drive-by media.”

In several ways, the reaction of the right-leaning O’Reilly to his critics mirrored Limbaugh’s. O’Reilly also declared himself the victim of a smear and counterattacked against the mainstream media.

The episode started with comments made on the Sept. 19 edition of O’Reilly’s syndicated radio show in which he expressed his approval of the black customers in the well-known Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem.

“It was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn’t any kind of craziness at all,” said O’Reilly, who added that “There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea.’”

Media Matters for America, a liberal group that expresses its activism by critiquing the press, posted O’Reilly’s remarks. They were part of a pattern, the group claimed, of “provocative statements about race” by the host of radio and TV. The controversy ballooned from there. O’Reilly said he was making a positive statement about race. His critics accused him of insultingly biased preconceptions about African-Americans.

Olbermann, a relentless O’Reilly antagonist, took his shots in segment he titled “Billo Goes to Harlem.”

Yet one of O’Reilly’s attackers came from the right side of the political spectrum. Conservative radio host Michael Savage, oozing sarcasm, remarked that “O’Reilly goes to a restaurant in Harlem and finds out ‘wow, look at that man, blacks use forks and knives. Far out.’”

“Did he put his foot into it this time,” said a gleeful Savage, asking what he clearly believed was a rhetorical question.

For his part, O’Reilly, fought back hard, devoting part of several Fox News Channel shows to the controversy last week. On Sept. 26, he asserted that “the far-left smear web site Media Matters distorted a very positive discussion on race and accused me of racism.” O’Reilly then singled out a number of media outlets—ranging from CNN to CBS’s “Early Show” to the Philadelphia Inquirer—that he said unfairly picked up on the “Media Matters defamation.” (He also pointed out those outlets, including the “Today” show and Newsday, that he believed treated him fairly.)

“The tragedy here is that there is no longer an honest press in America,” O’Reilly observed.

The honesty of the press may be in the eye of the beholder. What is indisputable is that last week, talk hosts were a big part of the talk in the talk show universe.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Iran – 28%
2. 2008 Campaign – 20%
3. Iraq Policy Debate – 14%
4. Bill O'Reilly's Comments – 6%
5. Immigration – 3%
6. Jena 6 – 2%
7. Bush's Speech at the UN – 2%
8. General Motors Negotiations – 2%
9. Myanmar Protests – 2%
10. Larry Craig – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Iran – 13%
2. 2008 Campaign – 11%
3. Myanmar Protests – 8%
4. General Motors Negotiations – 5%
5. Events in Iraq – 5%
6. Iraq Policy Debate – 4%
7. Health Care – 2%
8. US Domestic Terrorism – 2%
9. Bill O'Reilly's Comments – 2%
10. Nevada Sex Abuse Video – 2%

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