November 1, 2007

Talk Hosts Play the Blame Game with California Fires

PEJ Talk Show Index October 21 - 26, 2007

For liberal talk radio host Randi Rhodes, the rampaging wildfires in California last week presented an opportunity to remind listeners of another natural disaster—and not one of the Bush administration’s finest moments.

While discussing President Bush’s Oct. 25 trip to the scene of the California blazes, Rhodes admonished him not to say anything “stupid.” She then replayed the 2005 audio clip in which the President praised FEMA director Michael Brown’s response to Hurricane Katrina with the now infamous words, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” The embattled Brown, widely blamed for some of the post-Katrina chaos, resigned 10 days later.

On the other side of the talk dial, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh linked the fires that destroyed about 2,000 homes to elements of the environmental movement. He accused those who connected the fires and global warming of “a blatant attempt to politicize” the disaster. Then he laid blame on the “whacko environmentalists who will not let anybody go in and clear out the dead wood.”

“This,” he added, “is the height of irresponsibility.”

In all, the wildfires in Southern California were the dominant story on the cable and radio talk shows last week, just as they were in the broader News Coverage Index of all media. The blazes across hundreds of thousands of acres of Southern California hillsides accounted for 36% of the airtime, as measured by PEJ’s Talk Show Index for Oct. 21-26. That made it the fifth-biggest talk topic of the year. And it easily trumped the week’s other major talk stories—the Presidential race (14%), the Iraq policy debate (9%), events inside Iraq (4%) and the debate over immigration policy, at 4%.

It is unusual for talk hosts to spend a lot of time discussing natural disasters, since it’s generally difficult to foment debate and disagreement over violent or extreme acts of nature. But one aspect of the wildfires story, just as it had for the more reportorial elements of the media culture, transformed it into more than simply a tragedy to be lamented. The shadow of Hurricane Katrina—and more notably, the widely criticized government response to the Gulf Coast flooding—enveloped the wildfires, providing a socio-political narrative to the coverage.

In the general news coverage, this led to a number of stories comparing, for example, conditions for the fire evacuees at San Diego’s Qualcomm stadium with the hardships for Katrina refugees inside the New Orleans Superdome. (They were dissimilar.)

In parts of the talk sector, however, the politicization of the wildfires was more blatant—and more likely to jump to conclusions about blame of all sorts. Some liberals tried to conjure up embarrassing comparisons with the Bush administration’s Katrina-related problems, sometimes making FEMA the fall guy. Conversely, some conservatives assailed liberals for trying to make political hay out of the tragedy while focusing some of their ire, as Limbaugh did, on environmentalists.

While the targets varied, the finger pointing could have put an eye out.

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.)

It is worth noting that the talkers’ response to the wildfires was not monolithic. Some of the hosts who devoted major coverage to the subject—CNN’s Lou Dobbs and the Fox News Channel team of Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes—spent considerable time discussing news developments related to the fires. It was left to others, such as MSNBC’s liberal Keith Olbermann and the Fox News Channel’s right-tilting Bill O’Reilly, to hammer away at the more ideological angles to the story. And that was certainly the case with radio hosts on both sides of the political spectrum.

“Politics and the California fire” was the headline on O’Reilly’s segment on Oct. 24. “The usual political loons are trying to define the fire in an ideological way,” he declared.

O’Reilly took issue with several Democratic politicians, including California Senator Barbara Boxer, who linked the war in Iraq with insufficient resources for the firefighting efforts. The Pentagon, O’Reilly declared, had concluded that the war effort had “no negative effect” on the California crisis, adding that “about 17,000 National Guard [troops] are available, right now, but not needed.”

On his syndicated radio show, Sean Hannity also went after the environmentalists, citing a Congressional study that he said accused them of blocking the “thinning of forests to prevent wildfires.”

“You can’t cut down a tree, you can’t thin it because you may hurt some obscure species that will offend these environmental extremist groups,” Hannity added disapprovingly.

On his Oct. 26 cable show, Olbermann seized on an incident that embarrassed the federal government. That was FEMA’s Oct. 23 press conference at which agency staffers posed as reporters and asked less-than-challenging questions of FEMA deputy director Harvey Johnson. The Fox News Channel and MSNBC televised the event.

“FEMA eliminates the middle man and passes on the propaganda savings to you,” declared a dismissive Olbermann. “FEMA today said not a single journalist attended the news conference, the press conference, the de-press conference.”

And Michael Savage, the conservative contrarian radio talker had his own villain in all this, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, even though he was generally lauded for his aggressive response to the disaster. (“Fires Boost Schwarzenegger’s Image” was the headline on one AP story.)

Savage disagreed. “Strudel-negger (an apparent reference to the governor’s Austrian background) is as good at this as the governor of Louisiana was in Katrina,” he asserted. “What a flop he is. Don’t tell me the muscleman did a good job. He stank.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. California Wildfires – 36%
2. 2008 Campaign – 14%
3. Iraq Policy Debate – 9%
4. Events in Iraq – 4%
5. Immigration – 4%
6. Iran – 3%
7. Health Care – 3%
8. Valerie Wilson/CIA Leak – 3%
9. Afghanistan – 1%
10. Alberto Gonzales – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. California Wildfires – 38%
2. 2008 Campaign – 9%
3. Events in Iraq – 7%
4. Iran – 3%
5. Iraq Policy Debate – 3%
6. Health Care – 2%
7. Baseball World Series – 2%
8. Immigration – 2%
9. U.S. Domestic Terrorism – 2%
10. U.S. Economy – 1%

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

Note: Due to technical errors, this week's sample does not include some programming from CNN and MSNBC that aired on Wednesday, October 24, and Thursday, October 25. In addition, CNN aired two special programs the evening of Tuesday, October 23, and those shows were not included either.