December 20, 2007

Talk Hosts Pounce as Clinton Appears to Stumble

PEJ Talk Show Index December 9 - 14, 2007

On his Dec. 12 radio show, conservative host Sean Hannity was full of holiday bad tidings for Hillary Clinton’s presidential effort.

“The polls are now just awful for the Hillary campaign,” he declared. “There’s a lot of infighting now being reported. Not only is she losing in Iowa, now the polls show she is losing in New Hampshire.”

The former First Lady didn’t fare much better on the Dec. 10 edition of MSNBC’s Hardball when host Chris Matthews announced his weekly “power rankings.” (That’s a concept lifted from the sports world where teams are constantly evaluated and rated according to their most recent performances.)

“Who had the absolute worst week last week?” asked Matthews. “Hillary Clinton. She spent her time sniping at Obama….she came off less inspired and simply annoyed this past week that someone else was exciting the crowd.”

With more manifest glee, conservative radio talker Rush Limbaugh reached for a Wizard of Oz wicked witch analogy in discussing the Clinton campaign’s purported troubles. People have been emailing all morning “asking me ‘do you believe it’s the end for Hillary?’” Limbaugh remarked on Dec. 14. “Until I see the house fall on her…and the legs curl up [and] the body in the casket, she is not dead, she is not finished.”

With the apparent tightening Democratic contest between Clinton and Barack Obama, the 2008 Presidential campaign overwhelmed the talk universe last week. The subject accounted for half of all the airtime (50%) in the cable and radio shows studied in PEJ’s Talk Show Index from Dec. 9-14. That made it the single biggest week for the campaign on the 12 talk shows in the index, topping the previous high water mark of 47% from Nov. 11-16. (Last week also marked the biggest week for campaign coverage (26%) in the general News Coverage Index, which measures coverage in 48 different news outlets.)

The second-biggest talk topic last week was U.S. domestic terrorism. It was fueled by the controversy over the destroyed terrorist interrogation tapes, but it lagged far behind the campaign in airtime (at 12%). Next was the steroids scandal blown wide open by the release of the report issued by former Senator George Mitchell last week, which accounted for 6% of airtime. The fourth-biggest story was immigration policy, at 5%. And various stories about the Christmas season made up the fifth-biggest story, 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.

There was plenty to talk about last week in the campaign, including two Iowa debates (the moderator was widely criticized for imposing too much control), Mike Huckabee’s surge toward the top of the Republican pack, and the Oprah Winfrey road show on behalf of Barack Obama.

But Hillary Clinton’s role as the candidate of most interest to the media, and especially as a lightning rod in talk radio, continues to stand out. PEJ studies throughout the year have found Clinton to be dominant newsmaker among all the candidates. In the period from July through September, indeed, she was the leading newsmaker in roughly twice as many campaign stories (16%) as her closest coverage rivals, Barack Obama and Fred Thompson (both at 8%).

Clinton’s dominance as a subject is amplified on talk radio. In the third quarter, she was the lead newsmaker in 31% of all talk campaign segments in that period with the closest pursuer, Obama, all the way back at 7%, according to PEJ’s quarterly analysis. Moreover, talk radio is a medium dominated by conservatives and led by Rush Limbaugh, a man who has built a six-figure audience and income, in part, by going after Bill and Hillary Clinton since the early 1990’s.

Last week, for example, while conservative talkers such as Limbaugh and Hannity were hammering away on the theme of Clinton’s faltering campaign, their liberal counterparts Ed Schultz and Randi Rhodes were much quieter on the election.

In a Dec. 19 Washington Post story, media critic Howard Kurtz raised the broader issue of whether Clinton was being treated more harshly by the press than her opponents—or at least her main rival Obama. “Clinton’s senior advisers have grown convinced that the media deck is stacked against them, that their candidate is drawing far harsher scrutiny than Barack Obama,” Kurtz wrote.

If they didn’t like what they were getting in the reportorial media, they may need to shut their ears when the talk media are on.

On his Dec. 10 MSNBC show Tucker Carlson declared that, “By most of the standard measures—polls, money, press and perceived trajectory—it is less and less clear that Hillary Clinton is still the Democratic frontrunner and Barack Obama the challenger.”

That message was driven home visually four nights later on the Fox News Channel’s Hannity & Colmes program. There the campaign conversation included a YouTube video showing a former Clinton precinct captain in Iowa ostentatiously pulling her Clinton sign out of her snowy front lawn and replacing it with an Obama sign.

Politico’s Mike Allen captured the spirit of that moment by noting that, “I saw today Senator Clinton’s campaign described as ‘fragile.’”

Between those hosts ideologically and unalterably opposed to Hillary Clinton and those simply hoping for the excitement of a tighter Democratic race, the talk universe was abuzz with “Hillary’s in Trouble” scenarios last week.

Savage, Steroids, and a Soft Spot for Bonds

The furor unleashed when the Mitchell report identified about 90 ballplayers who allegedly used performance-enhancing drugs didn’t really catch fire in the talk show world last week. At 6% of the newshole, it generated slightly less attention there than in the more general News Index (7%). Ironically, one of the talk hosts to broach the issue was conservative contrarian Michael Savage, even though he acknowledged he is not a sports fan. Still, that didn’t keep him from claiming clairvoyance when the Mitchell report was released.

“I understand there’s a big steroid scandal in the baseball world,” Savage told his listeners on Dec. 13. “I was right again. When they went after Barry Bonds, if you recall, I was the only one in the media who said ‘leave him alone, it looks like racism to me to pick on this guy.’ You’re picking on him when everybody is using steroids or at least a lot of them are.”

Maybe the San Francisco-based Savage was just showing some geographic loyalty. Bonds played in his city the past 15 years. Whatever the reason, it was more of a classically liberal argument for the conservative Savage to be using the R-word (racism) in Bonds’ defense.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 50%
2. U.S. Domestic Terrorism and Prevention – 12%
3. Baseball Steroids Scandal – 6%
4. Immigration – 5%
5. Holiday Season – 3%
6. Iran – 2%
7. Iraq Policy Debate – 1%
8. Global Warming – 1%
9. U.S. Economy – 1%
10. C.I.A. Leak Case- 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 26%
2. Baseball Steroids Scandal – 7%
3. U.S. Domestic Terrorism and Prevention – 7%
4. Deep Freeze in Plain States – 6%
5. Events in Iraq – 4%
6. U.S. Economy – 3%
7. Colorado Church Shootings – 3%
8. Global Warming – 3%
9. Immigration – 2%
10. Algerian UN Blast – 2%

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