Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Imus Becomes a Proxy Issue for Talk Shows

PEJ Talk Show Index April 8 – 13, 2007

On April 9, Dan Abrams found himself in what had to be an uncomfortable situation as the substitute host of Scarborough Country on MSNBC. The cable channel star, who is also MSNBC’s general manager, was faced with the prospect of having to talk about the suspension of his morning show host, Don Imus, for making racially insensitive comments on air.

But rather than dodge the issue, Abrams took it head on … and then used it to play offense against a rival channel.

“People have every right to be angry, insulted and hurt by Imus’s comments, and Imus himself has said they have every right to call for his resignation,” he announced. But then he added. “The one set of instigators who should be ignored are our friends over at Fox News, who have made this part of an ongoing political campaign against MSNBC over everything and anything they can find.”

Fox News, he went on, hardly has “clean hands” in the debate over civil discourse. “Last year one of its hosts clearly encouraged more white people to have babies after reporting about the increase of minority children in this country,” Abrams said.

In the talk show universe last week, Abrams was just one of many hosts to use the Imus story as a jumping off point for their own particular agenda. In Abrams case, it was inter cable news channel rivalry. But for others it ranged from arguments about free speech, feelings about inflammatory language, to anger against the perceived hypocrisy of Al Sharpton. In the talk universe, Imus was a Rorschach test.

In total, more than 60% of the minutes on the cable and radio talk shows were about Imus, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index for the week of April 8 to 13.

That makes Imus the biggest story encountered since the Talk Index began in early January. The next biggest talk story we have ever measured, Iraq policy, filled 48% of the airtime the week of January 7. The Imus story also received more than double the percent of newshole in the Talk Index than in the more general News Coverage Index of the media overall (26%).

The next biggest talk story last week was the legal vindication of the Duke Lacrosse team which received about 8% of the total minutes. It was followed by the immigration debate which rang in at 7% and the continuing discussion of Iraq policy which received 4% of the talk time – the lowest amount devoted to Iraq since the Talk Index began. Rounding out the top five was the U.S. attorney controversy which scored 3% of the time.

The Talk Show Index, released each 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.

The Imus story was a slightly bigger subject on cable TV talk than on talk radio. One reason was that MSNBC, which used to simulcast Imus’s radio program for 3-and-a-half hours each morning, felt it necessary to devote a great deal of time to the topic. Still it showed up as a topic on every show – a rarity in the Index.

Some hosts, particularly early in the week, seemed to show some sympathy for “The I-man” and saw him as the victim of a feeding frenzy.

On his Monday show, liberal talker Ed Schultz offered something short of a defense of Imus, but less than a condemnation. “No one in America is defending Don Imus, and they shouldn’t. But I think it’s a sad day in America when a person can’t apologize anymore. I mean who’s got the sincerity meter?”

Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, on the other hand, used the opportunity to make known his dislike of NBC and its President and CEO Jeff Zucker. “It’ll be interesting to see if NBC now will stop the hate that they’ve been peddling in on their cable networks for two years,” O’Reilly said on the telephone from Trinty College in Ireland where he was receiving an award from a philosophical society. “Jeff Zucker has consciously moved his cable networks into assassination the characters of people that they don’t like for ratings.”

O’Reilly said his show would now take the people who use offensive speech, especially gangster rappers, to task. “I wouldn’t want to be Snoopy Dog right now,” the host said using a diminutive of the rapper’s name. He also said he wouldn’t want to be Ludacris or Fifty Cent “because every move they make is going to be on the Factor.”

For conservative radio talk show host Michael Savage, the culprits were Al Sharpton, liberalism and Hillary Clinton. Liberals, he said, had abandoned their belief in free speech, and Sharpton had gone after Imus at Hillary’s urging.

“The left is filled with martinets today who are more concerned with sensitivity than truth,” Savage told his audience April 13. After criticizing Al Sharpton as a “street thug” and a talk show host with poor ratings, Savage said Sharpton wasn’t “the real issue.” He acknowledged that Imus’s comments were “stupid and racist” but said Imus lost his job because of Hillary Clinton. “I believe Sharpton was told by Hillary to go after him and go after him tooth and claw.”

Liberal host Randi Rhodes seemed more irritated with what she perceived as the singling out of Imus. “I don’t understand. Why him?” Rhodes said on her April 10 show. “Of all the hate speech I’ve heard on talk radio, all the grotesque stuff I’ve heard.” She then went on to criticize Mike Savage and Neil Bortz before playing a clip of Bortz criticizing Mohammed.

Rhodes, however, was not above singling out Imus herself for his appearance, urging him to use his time off to get plastic surgery. “This is a guy if you took Bea Arthur’s hair and put it on Arlen Specter’s head, with Andy Rooney’s eyebrows, that’s what Don Imus looks like.”

As a guest on Larry King Live April 11 (which is not included in the talk index), former talk show host Al Franken quickly turned a question about Imus to whether CNN should have kept Glenn Beck on the air after he asked Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, who is a Muslim, if he was working with terrorists.

As the week wound down, the public seemed to think the Imus story was overplayed – 57% of the public thought the story received too much coverage according to the most recent News Interest Index from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Even some of the talkers seemed a little burned out on the topic. Conservative Tom Sullivan, who was subbing for Rush Limbaugh, said there very little left to say about the issue, yet predicted “this won’t be the end of Don Imus.”

And Ed Schultz, the liberal who had tried to excuse Imus earlier in the week, was almost apologizing for still talking about the topic. “I’m not a fan of the Imus story,” Schultz said. But he argued he had to keep focusing on it because it simply wouldn’t die. He criticized politicians, particularly Hillary Clinton who apparently made the Rutgers controversy the lead of her Web site, for making flogging the issue “It’s not over the top, but it’s getting real close.”

“Enough is enough.”

Dante Chinni of PEJ


Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Imus’s Comments – 61%
2. Duke Lacrosse Scandal – 8%
3. Immigration – 7%
4. Iraq Policy Debate – 4%
5. Fired US Attorneys Controversy – 3%
6. 2008 Campaign – 2%
7. Events in Iraq – 2%
8. Pelosi Trip to the Middle East – 1%
9. Iran – 1%
10. Stem Cell Research – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Imus’s Comments – 26%
2. Events in Iraq – 10%
3. Duke Lacrosse Scandal – 7%
4. Iraq Policy Debate – 5%
5. Immigration – 5%
6. 2008 Campaign – 4%
7. Fired US Attorneys Conterversy – 2%
8. Iran – 2%
9. Kurt Vonnegut Dies – 2%
10. Iraq Homefront – 2%

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


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