It may have been the biggest Manhattan media mugging mystery since the
1986 attack on Dan Rather, the notorious incident in which his assailant
reportedly asked: “Kenneth, what’s the frequency?”
This one all began with a violent Oct. 14 incident in which
Randi Rhodes—the outspoken liberal talk radio host—suffered facial injuries
near her New York City
home. The next day, another liberal host, Jon Elliott, told listeners that Rhodes had been assaulted, and, according to an account
in the Talking Radio Blog, wondered whether it was “an attempt by the right-wing
hate machine to silence one of our own.”
With the prospect of politics playing a role in the attack,
the story took off, both in the mainstream media and the blogosphere. Liberal talker Ed Schultz told listeners that
Rhodes was a victim of “felonious assault,”
adding, “I certainly hope this was not a situation where you were stalked or
Then events got even murkier. On Oct. 16, Rhodes’
attorney stated that the host was not sure what had happened to her. And
Elliott quickly retracted his hate crime speculation. Other scenarios popped
up. A New York Post item called it a
“murky incident alternately described as a mugging, a fall, a drunken stumble
and a right-wing hate attack.”
Back the air on Oct. 18—after
four broken teeth and a blackened eye—Rhodes
tried to set matters straight, but she really couldn’t clear it up, either.
“I was watching football at an
Irish pub. I went out to smoke a cigarette and the next thing I know, I was on
the cement face down,” she told her audience, estimated by Talkers Magazine to
be about 1.5 million per week. “I don’t know if someone hit me from behind or
if I just fainted…I assumed that I had been mugged or that some really rude
person had slammed into me and had just taken off.” Rhodes
said she quickly dashed off an email to her employer saying, “I had been mugged
and that my teeth were smashed. When I wrote that, I thought that was the best
explanation of what happened.”
The strange case of Randi Rhodes, and the reaction to it, turned
the episode into the 10th biggest talk show subject of the week, where
it filled 2% of the cable and radio airtime as measured by PEJ’s Talk Show
Index for Oct. 14-19. It was one of three
top-10 talk subjects last week that, to one degree or another, directly
involved the radio or cable hosts. Not for the first time, widely syndicated
conservative radio talker Rush Limbaugh was in the middle of things.
Last week’s No. 1 topic was the presidential campaign at 21%
of the newshole, followed by the Iraq policy debate (10%), and
health care (6%). Immigration was the fourth-biggest story at 6% and U.S.
terrorism issues followed in the fifth slot at 5%.
(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.)
A major factor driving the Iraq policy conversation last week was
the latest twist in a lingering dispute over Limbaugh’s use of the term “phony
soldiers” on his Sept. 26 program. Limbaugh has stated he was referring to only
one disgraced former vet who had fabricated Iraq atrocities. A number of Democratic
lawmakers disagreed and attacked Limbaugh, saying he was using the term to
impugn the patriotism of any soldier who criticized the war in Iraq.
Last week, Limbaugh spent considerable time talking about
his indisputably creative response to this dispute. He took the “phony
soldiers” letter of complaint about him signed by 41 Democratic senators and
auctioned it on eBay, where it attracted a winning bid of $2.1 million.
Limbaugh has said he would match the top bid, with the money going to a charity
that aids the families of injured or killed marines and federal law enforcement
On his Oct. 19 show Limbaugh played a clip of Senate
Majority Leader Harry Reid—a major critic in the “phony soldiers”
battle—uttering a rare word of praise for the host by lauding the auction’s
“worthwhile cause.” But the talk host was in no mood for a truce.
“All of a sudden…you and I have buried the hatchet?” he
asked rhetorically. “And now he wants credit for helping raise this money?…It’s
Orwellian. It’s surreal.”
About one-third of all the talk segments related to the Iraq policy
debate were initiated by Limbaugh last week.
The health care debate that played out on the talk shows involved
a proposed expansion of the “SCHIP” (State
Children’s Health Insurance Program) vetoed by President Bush. A major point of contention revolved around
one family—the Frosts and their 12-year-old son Graeme—who became visible
advocates for the program, which provides health care for lower and moderate-income
children. The controversy sharpened when some opponents began digging into the
Frosts finances and contending that they were too well-off to be using SCHIP.
For two of the talkers—Limbaugh and MSNBC’s liberal
“Countdown” host Keith Olbermann—that issue got personal.
Olbermann had earlier accused some Frost family critics of “a
venom unfathomable to nearly all mentally balanced humans,” and argued that Senate Minority Leader Mitch
McConnell “helped to disseminate…lies” about the family.
Last week he revisited the issue. On his Oct. 16 program,
Olbermann reported that McConnell’s office had countered by attacking him, not
by name, but as a “liberal talk show host.” The title of Olbermann’s segment on
the subject, “smear anarchy.”
Limbaugh was on the other side, in his case taking on House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had charged that “hate radio has made a vicious
attack” on the Frosts.
“Hate radio, she means me,” said Limbaugh. “Let’s be honest.
You know it and I know it.”
Denying he had made “a vicious attack” on the SCHIP family,
Limbaugh aimed at the Democrats attacking him.
“Can anyone who is smeared by Harry Reid on one issue and
smeared by Nancy Pelosi on another issue be all that bad?” he asked.
If the nuances of an issue like SCHIP seem confusing, have
no fear. In the talk culture, the purported topic can seem like an accessory to
the main event, the host and his or her enemies, whether the mugging is
imagined or actually happened.
Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ
1. 2008 Campaign - 21%
2. Iraq Policy Debate - 10%
3. Health Care - 6%
Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index
4. Immigration - 6%
5. U.S. Domestic Terrorism - 5%
6. Larry Craig - 3%
7. Turkey/U.S. Relations - 3%
8. Events in Iraq - 2%
9. Nobel Prizes - 2%
10. Randi Rhodes' Incident - 2%
Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index
1. 2008 Campaign - 11%
2. Pakistan - 6%
3. Iraq Policy Debate - 5%
4. Events in Iraq - 4%
5. Immigration - 3%
6. U.S. Economy - 3%
7. Health Care - 3%
8. U.S. Domestic Terrorism - 3%
9. Deadly Staph Infections - 3%
10. Michael Mukasey - 2%
Click here to read the methodology behind the Talk Show Index.