April 10, 2008

PEJ Talk Show Index: March 31- April 6, 2008

Even though talk hosts enjoy a great deal of editorial license, several radio talkers found out last week that there still boundaries that can’t be crossed without consequences.

Liberal talker Ed Schultz provoked controversy and a rebuke from Barack Obama, after Schultz called John McCain a “warmonger” during an April 4 North Dakota fundraiser at which Obama spoke. (Obama’s campaign disavowed those remarks, just as McCain criticized conservative radio host Bill Cunningham in February for using a GOP rally to call Obama a “hack” and repeatedly use his middle name, Hussein.)

Another liberal host, Randi Rhodes—no fan of Hillary Clinton—got in even deeper when she used profanity to describe the former First Lady during a stand-up routine in San Francisco in late March. Air America Radio, Rhodes’ employer, suspended her for those remarks last week. Then, on April 10, Air America announced Rhodes’ decision to leave the liberal talk network where she was one of the top names.

While both Schultz and Rhodes ran into trouble for words uttered outside their talk studios, they also sounded off on their day jobs. On her March 31 program, Rhodes attacked Clinton’s recollection—later acknowledged to be inaccurate—about dodging sniper fire during a 1996 flight to Bosnia. Referring to the CBS footage that refuted Clinton’s account, Rhodes called her story a “big stinkin’ lie…Every single solitary airport landing I have ever had has been more traumatic than what I saw on the video in Tuzla.”

A day later, Schultz spoke about money problems in the Clinton campaign and warned that the “prolonged presidential primary [is] starting to deplete some of the resources for some of these other races” in the 2008 campaign. That’s an argument used by some who are trying to persuade the New York Senator to drop out in the interests of party unity and success.

But any suggestion that Clinton depart the race at this point was anathema to radio host Rush Limbaugh. “Why should she end her campaign?” he asked on March 31. “It’s America. Let every vote count.” Limbaugh—a staunch conservative and frequent Clinton critic—has his own motives. He has been touting his “Operation Chaos,” which involves urging Republicans to cross over and vote for Clinton as a way of keeping the Democratic primary fight from being resolved and preventing the party from unifying.

Last week, the presidential campaign—with its focus on the Obama-Clinton battle—dominated the talk show airwaves. According to PEJ’s Talk Show Index for the week of March 31-April 6, a full 72% of cable and radio talk airtime examined was devoted to the campaign. (You had to drop all the way down to 3% to find the next biggest topic, immigration.) That’s more than double the media attention given to the campaign (32% of the newshole) in the general News Index last week.

PEJ’s Talk Show Index 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 six prime time cable shows and five radio talk hosts and is a subset of our News Coverage Index.

One of the key story lines in last week’s campaign coverage was the question of whether Clinton should end her campaign. And for a number of talk hosts, especially conservatives who are not likely to embrace either Clinton or Obama in the general election, that increasing pressure on Clinton was a way of broaching another favorite subject—bias in the news media. For now at least, that made them something of allies of convenience with a Clinton campaign that has been complaining about unfair press treatment for many months.

On his Fox News Channel program, Bill O’Reilly went after the “newspaper columnists…in the tank for Senator Obama [who] wrote pretty much the same thing—Hillary Clinton can’t win and is hurting the Democratic Party by staying in the race.”

“There is no doubt Barack Obama is the favorite of many media outlets,” O’Reilly added. “But no journalists should be taking marching orders from any campaign.”

Limbaugh told his listeners that key elements of the “Democrat Party and the American left” are bringing “all kinds of pressure…on Mrs. Clinton.” To illustrate his point, he cited a recent spate of news stories reporting that the Clinton campaign had millions of dollars in unpaid debts to vendors.

No one spoke more bluntly than CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who on his April 1 show, declared that “I have never seen in my career greater favoritism being applied in the national media, broadly speaking, [than] in behalf of Senator Obama and against Senator Clinton.”

“We in the national media have played along with this pro-Obama nonsense a very, very long time,” Dobbs added.

The message was very different on the April 1 edition of MSBC’s Countdown, with Keith Olbermann, a liberal cable talker who has at times been quite critical of the Clinton campaign. In a comment that cited a key argument of the advocates for a Clinton withdrawal—that she can’t win and is only damaging the party’s November hopes by fighting it out—Olbermann talked about “Clinton’s decision to stay in the race despite apparently insurmountable math against her.”

No doubt some of Olbermann’s fellow talkers will see that as another example of the pro-Obama media bias. And we may have to wait until the eventual contest between John McCain and the Democratic nominee before the talk hosts reveal their true ideological colors.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 32%
2. U.S. Economy – 9%
3. Events in Iraq – 5%
4. Zimbabwe Elections – 3%
5. Martin Luther King Anniversary – 3%
6. Plane Safety – 3%
7. Bush’s trip to Europe – 2%
8. U.S. Domestic Terrorism and Efforts to Combat – 2%
9. Federal Reserve Regulatory Changes – 2%
10. Iraq Homefront – 2%

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