Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Campaign 2008 Emerges as a Major Talk Show Topic

PEJ Talk Show Index Jan. 14 – 19, 2007

Barack Obama’s move toward a formal White House bid last week may have unofficially kicked off the 2008 presidential campaign in the talk show universe, according to the PEJ Talk Show Index from January 14—January 19.

With the election still a daunting 21 months away, cable and talk radio hosts were much more fascinated with the prospect of an Obama candidacy than were the media overall. Talk shows devoted 11% of their air time to the subject, the second biggest topic of the week. (Hillary Clinton’s announcement of her candidacy January 20 should further stoke the talk show fires.)

A week earlier, the 2008 presidential contest wasn’t even among the top 10 stories in the talk show rankings.

The debate over President Bush’s “surge” policy in Iraq was the lead story, consuming 20% the talk show menu. But that represents an enormous plunge from the previous week when the subject commanded 48% of the air time. And the topic practically vanished from talk radio.

Of the 137 minutes of talk air time spent on the war strategy, only 13 of those came from the radio hosts. The reason for this is impossible to know, but one possibility is that conservative hosts do not want to spend much time on a subject that at the moment, does not tend to play well for the President.

The saga of the two kidnapped Missouri teens (7%), domestic anti-terrorism efforts (5%) and the new Democratic Congressional majority (5%)—subjects that attracted about the same level of general media coverage last week—completed the top-five story list.

The Talk Show Index, which will be released every Friday, 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, which is released every Tuesday and measures the subjects covered in a week by 48 different outlets from five American media sectors.

As we found in the first Index report, the talk show universe again took some of the biggest news items from the media world and gave them an even heavier chewing over. It was not so much adding new topics to the mix. The Iraq policy debate, for instance, got sizably more of the talk newshole than it did in the overall news media universe (20% vs. 14%). The fascination with the presidential race was even more striking. Talk gave the campaign more than double the attention the media generally did (11% vs. 5%).

Much of this chatter was speculation about a heavyweight matchup between the first woman and first black to have, potentially, a real shot at the White House. In talk radio, where Hillary Clinton and her husband have been lightning rods for 15 years, some of the early reviews weren’t great for the New York senator.


On the liberal spots on the dial, former Democratic Congressional candidate Tony Trupiano (subbing for Ed Schultz on January 17), accused the media of doing a “misplaced job” of anointing Hillary as the frontrunner adding, “I’m not a big Hillary Clinton fan…Is Barack Obama then, the next in line?”

The talk shows did seize on some issues that slipped below the general media radar. For the second week in a row, for instance, the possibility of a confrontation between the U.S. and Iran made the top 10 talk rankings, finishing seventh at 3%. It was a subject briefly but pointedly broached by President Bush in his January 10 speech. And though much of the coverage elsewhere in the media has since refocused on the carnage in Iraq, the cable hosts haven’t been so quick to drop the Iran matter.

“Is the White House setting the stage for a war with Iran?” asked MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough bluntly on his January 15 show. His guests, Craig Crawford and Pat Buchanan, acknowledged that scenario might be real.

The debate over immigration policy was another subject bigger in talk than elsewhere, (the sixth biggest talk story at 3%). The discussion was fueled in large measure by a controversial case involving the incarceration of two U.S. border patrol agents who shot a suspected drug smuggler near the U.S.—Mexican border.

Two other top talk subjects—global warming (2%) and China’s shoot-down of a satellite in space (2%)—reflected the agendas of a few individual hosts. Rush Limbaugh’s skepticism about global warning single-handedly elevated that subject in the rankings. And CNN anchor Lou Dobbs’s alarm about the military implications of the Chinese action accounted for the huge majority of time devoted to that subject.

One story that attracted similar attention in the news and talk indices was the unfolding saga of the rescued teens in Missouri. The kidnapping drama got particularly intense coverage from Fox News Channel hosts. A good chunk of the speculation about the case related to “Stockholm Syndrome”—the phenomenon of a hostage identifying with his or her captor—as a reason why one of the boys did not escape during four years of captivity.

Here, two of the channel’s leading conservative prime-time hosts took quite different views. On the January 19 edition of Hannity & Colmes, Sean Hannity declared that “This kid was kidnapped. This was a victim here. It seems like people never heard of the Stockholm Syndrome.”

On his show four nights earlier, Bill O’Reilly told viewers: “The Stockholm Syndrome thing, I don’t buy it. I’ve never bought it. I didn’t think it happened with Patty Hearst and I don’t think it happened here.” His Fox colleague and guest on that show, Greta Van Susteren, disagreed, reminding O’Reilly that “this is a kid, Bill.”

After creating something of a firestorm with those remarks, O’Reilly revisited the subject on January 18, asserting that “the far-left smear web sites have vilified me for raising questions about the situation.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 20%
2. 2008 Campaign – 11%
3. Kidnapped Teens – 7%
4. Domestic Terrorism – 5%
5. New Congress – 5%
6. Immigration Debate – 3%
7. Iran – 3%
8. Global Warming – 2%
9. China Tests Weapon – 2%
10. Execution of Saddam’s Aides – 2%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 14%
2. Kidnapped Teens – 8%
3. Snowstorms – 6%
4. Events in Iraq – 6%
5. 2008 Campaign – 5%
6. New Congress – 4%
7. Domestic Terrorism – 4%
8. Execution of Saddam’s Aides – 2%
9. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday – 2%
10. Art Buchwald Dies – 2%

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

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