November 8, 2007

The Talkers Hammer Hillary Clinton

PEJ Talk Show Index Oct. 28 - Nov. 2, 2007

There isn’t much that conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh and liberal talker Ed Schultz agree on.

But last week, the two syndicated hosts from opposite sides of the political spectrum seemed to find common ground on one hot topic—Democratic presidential front runner Hillary Clinton.

When the Clinton campaign complained that her opponents for the nomination had ganged up on her during a rough-and-tumble Oct. 30 debate in Philadelphia, the two hosts lit into the New York Senator.

“How stupid,” declared Limbaugh on Nov. 2. “One day she wants to be thought of as strong like a man, as a member of the boys’ club. Then the other times, she’s just this victim…She’s blowing this big time…Mrs. Clinton playing the gender card.”

“It appears to me Hillary Clinton is playing the role of a victim,” declared Schultz a day earlier. “I think it’s whining…I think it’s not a smart play…she’s trying to change the subject.”

It was that kind of week for Hillary Clinton. The 2008 Presidential campaign was the dominant topic on the radio and cable talk shows last week, filling 42% of the airtime, as measured by PEJ’s Talk Show Index for Oct. 28-Nov. 2. That was the single biggest week for the campaign in the 2007 talk universe—and the conversation was virtually all Clinton all the time. The former First Lady was a significant subject in about 75% of the talk segments in last week’s Index. And many of them were not flattering or friendly.

After the race for the White House, there was a huge drop off to the second-biggest topic (at 6%). That was the furor over revelations that bounty hunter/reality TV star Duane “Dog” Chapman (he of the spectacular mullet hair style) repeatedly used the “N-word” racial slur in a telephone conversation with his son. That was followed by the confirmation process for Attorney General Nominee Michael Mukasey (5%), immigration issues (5%) and the Iraq policy debate (4%).

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.)

Hillary Clinton’s history with the talk hosts goes back more than a decade to when she lived in the White House and presided over an unsuccessful attempt to remake the nation’s health care system. (Conservative talk radio’s ascendancy coincided to a significant extent with Bill Clinton’s 1992 election as President.)

Ever since Clinton’s January announcement that she intended to follow in her husband’s footsteps, she has been a prime subject on talk radio and a prime target of conservative talkers. PEJ’s recent report on election coverage in the first five months of 2007 found that Clinton generated almost three times as many segments on conservative talk radio as any other candidate. And 86% of those segments about her were negative in tone. But she didn’t fare well on the liberal talk radio either, where she was a far less frequent topic of discussion, but where negative segments about her outnumbered positive ones by two-to-one.

Cable news has also been fascinated by the Clinton candidacy. And next to radio, it is the media sector that devoted the highest percentage of coverage (17.5%) to her in the early phases of the campaign, according to the PEJ election study.

The triggering event for last week’s outpouring of Hillary hammering was the Oct. 30 debate at which she was aggressively attacked by her rivals and turned in a performance that, according to many media post-mortems, left something to be desired. (This week, in an interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley, Clinton acknowledged as much, saying “I wasn’t at my best the other night.”)

That was certainly an understatement as far as many of the talk hosts were concerned. One line of criticism was the post-debate whining angle seized on by both Limbaugh and Schultz. Then there were the poor reviews of her actual debate performance.

“Last night’s debate in Philadelphia may soon become known as the great Hillary debacle,” declared Sean Hannity, the conservative half of the “Hannity & Colmes” Fox News Channel team. Next came focus group guru Frank Luntz, who monitored the response of 29 Democratic voters to the candidates during the debate and concluded that “what we saw last night was for the first time, this Hillary presidential train seems to have been slightly derailed.”

The debate moment that got the attention of a number of commentators was Clinton’s equivocal response when asked whether she supported New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to give drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants. “I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do” it, she declared.

Providing his debate post-mortem on Tucker Carlson’s Oct. 31 MSNBC show (guest hosted by David Shuster), Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe said some of Clinton’s answers “seemed to encapsulate a narrative that has been out there, but has not been seized on for most of this campaign, which is about truthfulness, about being clear, about answering questions.”

“Is Hillary being too Clintonian?” he asked.

The immigration issue is CNN host Lou Dobb’s favorite topic by far, so he was quick to attack Clinton on his Oct. 31 program.

“Hillary says she is for Spitzer’s proposal—and against it,” Dobbs declared, with more than a hint of incredulity. “What in the world is this Democratic front runner trying to do?”

In the same segment, CNN’s senior political analyst William Schneider reported on a poll in which 76% of Americans say they oppose drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants. He also noted that at the debate, Clinton’s “Democratic rivals were quick to pounce—the charge—evasiveness.”

Even the distraction of Halloween brought no respite for Clinton. “Hillary Clinton leads in yet another poll,” reported MSNBC “Hardball” host Chris Matthews on his Oct. 29 program. As it turns out, 37% of the respondents to an Associated Press survey said that of all the major presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton would make the scariest Halloween costume. Rudy Giuliani was a distant second at 14%.

“Two-thirds of Republicans picked Hillary Clinton as the spookiest costume,” said Matthews matter of factly, “and even a fifth of the Democrats said that.”

Whether the subject was debate evasiveness or Halloween spookiness, Hillary Clinton had a week in the talk show universe that her campaign would surely like to forget.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 42%
2. Dog the Bounty Hunter Scandal – 6%
3. Michael Mukasey as Attorney General Nominee – 5%
4. Immigration – 5%
5. Iraq Policy Debate – 4%
6. U.S. Economy – 3%
7. Iran – 3%
8. Global Warming – 2%
9. U.S. Domestic Terrorism – 2%
10. Product Recalls – 2%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 17%
2. Events in Iraq – 6%
3. California Wildfires – 4%
4. Tropical Storm Noel – 4%
5. U.S. Economy – 4%
6. Michael Mukasey as Attorney General Nominee – 4%
7. North Carolina Beach House Fire – 2%
8. Immigration – 2%
9. Iraq Policy Debate – 2%
10. Iran – 2%

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