You may have thought the big news on the 2008 campaign trail last week was the GOP gathering in Dearborn Michigan that marked the first debate for recently announced candidate Fred Thompson.
But in some quarters of the talk show world, it wasn’t just the debaters, but the moderator, who became the focus of attention.
On his MSNBC talk show on Oct. 8, host Dan Abrams accused the Fox News Channel of conducting a campaign to discredit the moderator—MSNBC’s Chris Matthews—on ideological grounds.
“In a silly and obvious partisan attack, [Fox News is] suggesting Matthews shouldn’t host a Republican debate,” said Abrams. “I say Chris Matthews expresses opinions on his show that are far less predictable than any host covering politics on Fox.”
The next day conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh dismissed the idea that Matthews was an independent, non-partisan. “This is all about elevating the stature of Chris Matthews as an NBC personality,” he said. “The idea he is not partisan is absurd. He is in the tank for Hillary Clinton.”
Last week, it was not just campaign events themselves, but contentious sideshows like the Matthews controversy that helped make the presidential campaign the hottest topic—by far—on the radio and cable talk shows. The race for the White House consumed a full one-third of the talk airtime (33%), as measured by PEJ’s Talk Show Index for Oct. 7-12. Only once in 2007 has the campaign garnered more talk time—the week of Aug. 5-10—when it filled 35% of the talk newshole.
Just as striking, there was a huge 25 percentage-point gap last week between the top story (campaign at 33%) and the second-biggest story (immigration debate at 8%). Only four times all year has there been a bigger difference in coverage between the first two subjects.
The third-biggest talk topic last week, U.S. domestic terrorism (7%) was spurred by sparring over domestic surveillance legislation. The rest of the top five on the talk agenda last week were the debate over Iraq policy (5%) and the awarding of the Nobel Prizes (5%), which gave hosts an opportunity to either applaud or attack Peace Prize Winner Al Gore.
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.
Some of the conversation about the presidential campaign on the talk airwaves last week also involved a story that bounced around the Internet, but never got much mainstream media play. A National Enquirer story alleging an extramarital affair between Democratic candidate John Edwards and a campaign worker got the attention of several radio hosts, even if they warned their listeners to be skeptical.
“Here comes the smut,” declared liberal radio host Ed Schultz on his Oct. 12 show as he described the story and Edwards’s declaration that it was “completely untrue.” But while clearly doubting, Schultz was not completely dismissive.
“The scary thing here is there are stories that have been in the National Enquirer in the past that have turned out to be true…Is it a plant? It it true? Is it just made up by the National Enquirer?”
Conservative radio host Sean Hannity, perhaps as a justification for taking up the story, said he’d been “inundated” with emails about the Edwards story. And while he didn’t completely discount the possibility that the supermarket tab got it right, he warned his listeners that “they’re not exactly the most credible source…stay away from this stuff and don’t look towards a scandal as the great hope for winning an election.”
Also helping to fill some of that huge newshole for the presidential campaign was an atypical analyst. Actor Ben Affleck showed up on Chris Matthews’ “Hardball” on MSNBC to comment on the Republicans in their Michigan debate. Introduced by Matthews as one of the “brightest stars in Hollywood” and “one of the sharpest political minds as well,” Affleck seemed somewhat embarrassed by an introduction that viewers might think overstated his gifts of political analysis and film reviewers might think exaggerated his acting skills.
Affleck was not the only unusual guest making the talk rounds last week. On his Oct. 8 show, the Fox New Channel’s Bill O’Reilly discussed the war on terror with Kinky Friedman, the cigar-chomping Texan and former front man for the satirical 1970s cowboy band, Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. As for his political bona fides in relation to Ben Affleck, the philosopher, author, and country and western star did garner about 12% of the vote in a quixotic bid in the 2006 Texas gubernatorial race.
When O’Reilly asked for a reaction to musician Bruce Springsteen’s vocal criticism of the government’s war on terror, Friedman wasn’t in the mood to attack. “I’ve met the guy on one occasion. I think it was in ’75 or something,” he recalled. “I was at that time touring with Bob Dylan and I was flyin’ on 11 different kinds of herbs and spices, I guess. And I refused to shake hands with him for some reason. And I got seven years of bad luck. I’d like to make it up to Bruce.”
Thus are the risks of having celebrity pundits be a tad too candid.
When it came to what was arguably the biggest event on the campaign trail last weekend—Thompson’s first appearance at a GOP debate—the reviews tended to be mixed, leaning toward unimpressed. After garnering a good deal of positive attention when he was just contemplating a run for President, Thompson is finding the going a lot tougher now that he’s actually in the game.
On Tucker Carlson’s MSNBC show last week, (guest hosted by David Shuster), Newsweek’s Richard Wolfe graded the former Tennessee senator’s performance as “good and bad…He really didn’t rise to expectations.” On the same show, former GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey said Thompson “should have prepared himself to come on the stage and command the stage…I don’t think he did that.”
Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, on the Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes” program, was also less than effusive about Thompson’s debate performance. “The most important thing was that he met sort of a basic expectation,” he said. “He didn’t knock the ball out of the park.”
Savage Savages Coulter
Of the radio talk hosts on both sides of the political divide, the most unconventional may be San Francisco-based Michael Savage. A conservative/contrarian known for rambling monologues, a hair-trigger temper, and a willingness to push the envelope on rhetoric, he has outraged many on the left in his 12-year talk radio career.
But last week, he took dead aim at one of the country’s most outspoken conservatives. On an Oct. 8 appearance on CNBC, Ann Coulter again made headlines and stirred a backlash by declaring her preference for an all-Christian nation. When asked about the role of Jews, she added, “We just want Jews to be perfected.”
The only talk host to take her on among the shows PEJ examined was Savage.
“There are many people who don’t even understand how fundamentally thug-like and anti-Semitic this is…you would expect this from uneducated drunken louts,” he declared on his Oct. 12 program. “This woman is a disgrace. She has no place in the media…What’s amazing to me is that there’s been no outcry amongst conservatives.”
Savage’s outcry turned Coulter’s remarks into the 10th-biggest talk topic (at 1%) last week.
Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ
Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index
Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index1. 2008 Campaign - 15% 2. Immigration - 6%
Click here to read the methodology behind the Talk Show Index.