October 24, 2007

The Talk Hosts Get Personal

PEJ Talk Show Index October 14 - 19, 2007

It may have been the biggest Manhattan media mugging mystery since the 1986 attack on Dan Rather, the notorious incident in which his assailant reportedly asked: “Kenneth, what’s the frequency?”

This one all began with a violent Oct. 14 incident in which Randi Rhodes—the outspoken liberal talk radio host—suffered facial injuries near her New York City home. The next day, another liberal host, Jon Elliott, told listeners that Rhodes had been assaulted, and, according to an account in the Talking Radio Blog, wondered whether it was “an attempt by the right-wing hate machine to silence one of our own.”

With the prospect of politics playing a role in the attack, the story took off, both in the mainstream media and the blogosphere. Liberal talker Ed Schultz told listeners that Rhodes was a victim of “felonious assault,” adding, “I certainly hope this was not a situation where you were stalked or targeted.”

Then events got even murkier. On Oct. 16, Rhodes’ attorney stated that the host was not sure what had happened to her. And Elliott quickly retracted his hate crime speculation. Other scenarios popped up. A New York Post item called it a “murky incident alternately described as a mugging, a fall, a drunken stumble and a right-wing hate attack.”

Back the air on Oct. 18—after four broken teeth and a blackened eye—Rhodes tried to set matters straight, but she really couldn’t clear it up, either.

“I was watching football at an Irish pub. I went out to smoke a cigarette and the next thing I know, I was on the cement face down,” she told her audience, estimated by Talkers Magazine to be about 1.5 million per week. “I don’t know if someone hit me from behind or if I just fainted…I assumed that I had been mugged or that some really rude person had slammed into me and had just taken off.” Rhodes said she quickly dashed off an email to her employer saying, “I had been mugged and that my teeth were smashed. When I wrote that, I thought that was the best explanation of what happened.”

The strange case of Randi Rhodes, and the reaction to it, turned the episode into the 10th biggest talk show subject of the week, where it filled 2% of the cable and radio airtime as measured by PEJ’s Talk Show Index for Oct. 14-19. It was one of three top-10 talk subjects last week that, to one degree or another, directly involved the radio or cable hosts. Not for the first time, widely syndicated conservative radio talker Rush Limbaugh was in the middle of things.

Last week’s No. 1 topic was the presidential campaign at 21% of the newshole, followed by the Iraq policy debate (10%), and health care (6%). Immigration was the fourth-biggest story at 6% and U.S. terrorism issues followed in the fifth slot at 5%.

(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.)

A major factor driving the Iraq policy conversation last week was the latest twist in a lingering dispute over Limbaugh’s use of the term “phony soldiers” on his Sept. 26 program. Limbaugh has stated he was referring to only one disgraced former vet who had fabricated Iraq atrocities. A number of Democratic lawmakers disagreed and attacked Limbaugh, saying he was using the term to impugn the patriotism of any soldier who criticized the war in Iraq.

Last week, Limbaugh spent considerable time talking about his indisputably creative response to this dispute. He took the “phony soldiers” letter of complaint about him signed by 41 Democratic senators and auctioned it on eBay, where it attracted a winning bid of $2.1 million. Limbaugh has said he would match the top bid, with the money going to a charity that aids the families of injured or killed marines and federal law enforcement personnel.

On his Oct. 19 show Limbaugh played a clip of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—a major critic in the “phony soldiers” battle—uttering a rare word of praise for the host by lauding the auction’s “worthwhile cause.” But the talk host was in no mood for a truce.

“All of a sudden…you and I have buried the hatchet?” he asked rhetorically. “And now he wants credit for helping raise this money?…It’s Orwellian. It’s surreal.”

About one-third of all the talk segments related to the Iraq policy debate were initiated by Limbaugh last week.

The health care debate that played out on the talk shows involved a proposed expansion of the “SCHIP” (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) vetoed by President Bush. A major point of contention revolved around one family—the Frosts and their 12-year-old son Graeme—who became visible advocates for the program, which provides health care for lower and moderate-income children. The controversy sharpened when some opponents began digging into the Frosts finances and contending that they were too well-off to be using SCHIP.

For two of the talkers—Limbaugh and MSNBC’s liberal “Countdown” host Keith Olbermann—that issue got personal.

Olbermann had earlier accused some Frost family critics of “a venom unfathomable to nearly all mentally balanced humans,” and argued that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell “helped to disseminate…lies” about the family.

Last week he revisited the issue. On his Oct. 16 program, Olbermann reported that McConnell’s office had countered by attacking him, not by name, but as a “liberal talk show host.” The title of Olbermann’s segment on the subject, “smear anarchy.”

Limbaugh was on the other side, in his case taking on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had charged that “hate radio has made a vicious attack” on the Frosts.

“Hate radio, she means me,” said Limbaugh. “Let’s be honest. You know it and I know it.”

Denying he had made “a vicious attack” on the SCHIP family, Limbaugh aimed at the Democrats attacking him.

“Can anyone who is smeared by Harry Reid on one issue and smeared by Nancy Pelosi on another issue be all that bad?” he asked.

If the nuances of an issue like SCHIP seem confusing, have no fear. In the talk culture, the purported topic can seem like an accessory to the main event, the host and his or her enemies, whether the mugging is imagined or actually happened.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 21%
2. Iraq Policy Debate – 10%
3. Health Care – 6%
4. Immigration – 6%
5. U.S. Domestic Terrorism – 5%
6. Larry Craig – 3%
7. Turkey/U.S. Relations – 3%
8. Events in Iraq – 2%
9. Nobel Prizes – 2%
10. Randi Rhodes' Incident – 2%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 11%
2. Pakistan – 6%
3. Iraq Policy Debate – 5%
4. Events in Iraq – 4%
5. Immigration – 3%
6. U.S. Economy – 3%
7. Health Care – 3%
8. U.S. Domestic Terrorism – 3%
9. Deadly Staph Infections – 3%
10. Michael Mukasey – 2%

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