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%).
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.
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
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
1. 2008 Campaign - 34%
2. Iran - 18%
3. Immigration - 5%
Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index
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.