Much of the media narrative that emerged from the July 23 CNN/YouTube
debate was about the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama disagreement over whether a President
should meet with hostile foreign leaders. And when that argument continued
throughout the week, some analysts viewed it as one of the early defining
moments of the Democratic presidential battle.
But in the world of talk last week, both in cable and
radio, it was the CNN/YouTube debate itself—with its unusual format of citizen-produced
video questions—that became a big part of the story. The reviews were mixed.
On his July 24 program, conservative radio host Rush
Limbaugh thought “a lot of these questioners were idiots.” He especially didn’t
like the citizen who asked each candidate to say something they liked and
disliked about the person next to them.
“This is silly,” Limbaugh observed. “This is right out of
the Miss American pageant.”
On the same day, liberal radio talker Ed Schultz waxed
enthusiastic about the format. “Did you
watch the YouTube debate last night?” he asked listeners. “I thought [CNN
moderator] Anderson Cooper did a great job…You have to admit the questions were
different and the responses were somewhat different.”
The July 23 edition of the Fox News Channel’s “Hannity &
Colmes” program featured a focus group assembled by controversial pollster
Frank Luntz reacting to the debate. By a substantial margin, they thought Obama
had outperformed Clinton, using
words like “charismatic” and “sincere” to describe the Illinois Senator. But
the verdict seemed even more unified when Luntz asked how many people liked the
debate. Virtually every hand shot up.
“They want real people talking on the real issues,” Luntz
With that “real people” debate accounting for almost 50% of
the segments, the presidential campaign was the leading cable and radio talk
subject last week, filling 18% of the airtime according to PEJ’s Talk Show
Index for July 22-27.
next biggest story in the Talk universe last week was the growing confrontation
between Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and those in the Democratic-led
Congress who believe he has been playing fast and loose with the truth, which
made up 9% of the talk time. (The presidential campaign and the Gonzales crisis
also finished #1 and #2 last week in the general news Index.)
A brutal crime that attracted major news coverage last week
was also among the top stories on the talk shows. The home invasion that took
three lives in quiet Cheshire Connecticut
was the third-biggest talk topic (at 6%). That was followed by the issue of
borders and immigration (fourth-biggest at 6%) that festers in the aftermath of
the recent defeat of the immigration bill. The top-five story roster was
rounded out by concerns about domestic terrorism (5%), driven in part by a Transportation
Security Administration report about possible “dry runs” for attacks that
entailed bringing suspicious objects into airports.
The talk culture was also more fixated than the news media
generally on two stories that generated considerable buzz in the sports and
celebrity worlds. The fallout from Atlanta Falcon quarterback Michael Vick’s
dogfighting arrest was the eighth-biggest story at 3%. And the drug and alcohol
bust of one of Hollywood’s girls
gone wild, 21-year-old Lindsay Lohan, was ninth 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.
The horrific slaying of a Connecticut mother and her two
daughters is the kind of event that triggers coverage not only because of the
nature of the crime, but because it reinforces the basic fear that no one is
really safe from crime. And while the news coverage was gruesome enough, the
emotions associated with a case like this had even freer rein in the talk realm.
Two of those hosts, MSNBC’s Dan Abrams and talk radio’s Michael Savage,
did most of the talking.
Calling the two suspects in the Connecticut case, “the worst
of the worst,” Abrams offered some advice. “Even though [Connecticut has] only
executed one person in the last 29 years, and only eight inmates are on death
row, this is the time to add two more.”
Calling the crime, “the worst nightmare imaginable to any normal human
being,” the conservative Savage directed his anger against the media. He
basically accused journalists of downplaying this case because the victims were
affluent and white.
“Are they saying it’s offensive to poor people to cover a slaughter like
this that occurs to rich people,” he continued. “Instead, we’re hearing about
the drug-addicted slut Lindsay Low Brow. Instead, we see the story of the
crimes of dumb football player who throws a dog into a pit bull ring.”
The latest Lohan misadventure also was dissected on Abrams’ July 24 show
when the host relied on another celebrity “familiar with Hollywood, drugs and rehab”—former
“Partridge Family” child star Danny Bonaduce—for expert commentary and context.
Asked if he was surprised that Lohan had been busted so soon after a rehab
stint, Bonaduce responded with a kind of celebrity worldly weariness.
“Not surprised at all,” he said. “I spent 30 days in the exact same
rehab…The success rate of rehab is four to eight percent.”
The Michael Vick saga, about the Atlanta Falcons quarterback indicted
for dogfighting, also became fodder for detours into other matters. On the
July 27 edition of The Fox News Channel’s “O’Reilly Factor,” guest host
Michelle Malkin turned the case into a referendum on PETA, the animal rights
group that has been a vocal critic of the quarterback.
“Animal rights groups are pressuring Nike and other major companies to
drop the NFL star,” explained Malkin as she interviewed PETA official Daphna
“What happens if Michael Vick is exonerated of these charges?”
Yet of all the talk hosts examined in PEJ’s Index last week, only one of
them brought up the fantastic tale of Oscar, the Rhode Island nursing home cat
with extraordinary powers.
“Seen the story about that cat?” asked Rush Limbaugh on his July 26
show. “Beautiful cat. People in a nursing home have figured out this cat knows
when residents of the nursing home are going to pass away. It gets up on their
beds and cuddles up.” Right before launching into a discussion of the Democrats
versus Alberto Gonzales, Limbaugh made the salient point about Oscar.
You probably don’t want him hanging around you.
Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ
1. 2008 Campaign - 18%
2. Alberto Gonzales Controversies - 9%
Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index
3. Connecticut Murders - 6%
4. Immigration - 6%
5. US Domestic Terror Threat - 5%
6. Iraq Policy Debate - 5%
7. Health Care - 4%
8. Michael Vick Indicted - 3%
9. Lindsay Lohan - 3%
10. Fired Attorneys - 2%
Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index
1. 2008 Campaign - 12%
2. Alberto Gonzales Controversies - 6%
3. US Domestic Terror Threat - 4%
4. Iraq Policy Debate - 4%
5. Iraq Homefront - 3%
6. Events in Iraq - 3%
7. Connecticut Murders - 2%
8. Stocks Fall - 2%
9. Afghanistan - 2%
10. Immigration - 2%
Click here to read the methodology behind the Talk Show Index.