December 13, 2007

Talk Hosts React to Romney on Religion

PEJ Talk Show Index December 2 - 7, 2007

According to MSNBC Hardball host Chris Matthews, Mitt Romney’s Dec. 6 speech trying to reassure voters about his Mormon religion represented nothing less that “the biggest political risk of his career.”

With polls showing Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee—who touts himself as a “Christian leader”—vaulting past Romney in Iowa, the former Massachusetts Governor delivered a speech about faith and politics that invited comparisons to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 address dealing with his Roman Catholic faith.

Kennedy’s address, now widely regarded as a political triumph, was delivered in an era when most Americans got their news and commentary once a day from the daily paper or the nightly network newscast. Romney’s speech was delivered in an era of instantaneous, ubiquitous punditry, and the reviews rolled in fast and furious.

Among those offering a definite thumbs up was liberal pundit Bill Press on MSNBC on Dec. 6. “I thought Romney hit pretty much all the right notes today…He certainly looked presidential.”

Another positive review came from Fox News Channel host and conservative radio talker Sean Hannity. “I thought he gave a phenomenal speech today,” Hannity declared. “He made it clear that he, like our Founding Fathers, is a man of faith…He made clear, like our Founding Fathers…that religion should not be forced out of the public square.”

But that view was far from unanimous. On the Dec. 6 edition of MSNBC’s Hardball, commentator and former Bush religion advisor David Kuo said Romney “went wrong where Kennedy went right…He tried to justify his own theology…He ended up trying to mainstream the Mormon faith in Christian circles and I think that’s going to lead to a huge theological discussion.”

On Tucker Carlson’s MSNBC show, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was also critical, accusing Romney of “essentially trying to have it both ways…Let me tell you all about my faith…but don’t ask me too many questions about it cause it’s a little different from your faith.”

With Romney’s high-stakes speech as a major story line, the 2008 presidential campaign was easily the leading talk show topic last week. It filled 34% of the airtime as measured by PEJ’s Talk Show Index for Dec. 2-Dec. 7 and was the lead subject on both the cable and radio talk shows. The race for the White House was also the No. 1 story in the week’s general News Index (at 19%). But the talk hosts had considerably more leeway than political reporters to offer up their personal opinions of Romney’s remarks.

Given last week’s release of the National Intelligence Estimate concluding that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003, the U.S. conflict with Iran was the second hottest talk topic at 18% of the newshole. From there, it was a major drop to the third-biggest story, the immigration debate (5%). That was followed by U.S. domestic terrorism (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.

The report released Dec. 3 that Iran had apparently halted its nuclear weapon program seemed at odds with some of the rhetoric from the Bush administration about the dangers posed by Tehran. And the ensuing talk show argument over the meaning and implications of the new intelligence broke down along pretty predictable ideological lines.

On MSNBC, liberal Air America talk host Rachel Maddow asserted that the report was an embarrassing repudiation of the Bush White House.

“This document essentially brands the words ‘liar’ or ‘fool’ on everybody who has casually and falsely asserted that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons,” she said. “And that includes the President and Vice-President.”

For his part, Rush Limbaugh said he doubted the accuracy of the NIE conclusions. “You have to examine not just the motives of Iran. You’ve got to examine the motives and intent of the people at the NIE who put together this best guess.”

Mall terror and terrorist tapes don’t connect in the talk universe

While the NIE report paved the way for a heated debate over Iran policy between doves and hawks, two other big news stories last week were harder to adapt to the argument culture that defines the talk universe.

The Dec. 5 mall massacre that claimed nine lives (including the shooter’s) was the third-biggest story in the general News Index last week, filling 7% of the newshole. Yet, at only 2%, it was the sixth-biggest topic in the talk show world, filling 2% of the newshole in the index. And only a few cable hosts, primarily CNN’s Lou Dobbs, covered the subject in the programming examined.

One other story that, perhaps more surprisingly, didn’t grab real traction on the talk shows was the topic of terrorism (5%), which was driven by the explosive news that the CIA had destroyed tapes of interrogations of Al Qaeda prisoners. Although this seemed to have the potential to become a lively subject to disagreement among the left and right, none of the radio hosts picked up on the topic.

On the left, MSNBC host Keith Olbermann tried to make a cause celebre of the issue. But the key commentator on the other side of the political spectrum, Bill O’Reilly offered a nuanced view that seemed to illustrate the difficulty in making a full-fledged argument about the tapes.

O’Reilly acknowledged that “we simply cannot have CIA people destroying records, without the knowledge of the boss,” he said. “If something is sensitive, you classify it, you don’t destroy it.”

At the same time, the Fox News host made it clear his primary objection to the destroyed tapes was the propaganda victory it handed to critics of the U.S.

“People who hate America now have another hammer,” O’Reilly lamented. “[They’ll say] ‘USA is a torture country and American intelligence is a Gestapo,’ and on and on.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 34%
2. Iran – 18%
3. Immigration – 5%
4. U.S. Domestic Terrorism and Prevention – 5%
5. Iraq Policy Debate – 4%
6. Omaha Mall Shooting – 2%
7. U.S. Economy – 2%
8. Don Imus – 2%
9 tie. Global Warming – 1%
9 tie. Clinton Headquarters Hostage Situation – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 19%
2. Iran – 11%
3. Omaha Mall Shooting – 7%
4. U.S. Economy – 6%
5. U.S. Domestic Terrorism and Prevention – 5%
6. Winter Storms – 4%
7. Immigration – 2%
8. Venezuela Referndum – 2%
9. Events in Iraq – 2%
10. Iraq Policy Debate – 2%

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