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Talk Shows Consumed by Virginia Tech Tragedy

PEJ Talk Show Index April 15 – 20, 2007

If you didn’t think the April 16 rampage that left 33 dead at Virginia Tech had anything to do with the war on terror, you weren’t listening to talk radio last week blur the line between reality and fantasy.

[the Virginia Tech shootings]

For his part, conservative Michael Savage used his April 19 program to somehow try and link shooter Cho Seung Hui to Islamic terrorism. “Why is the fact that his parents…lived in Saudi Arabia for 10 years and worked in Saudi Arabia for 10 years not being discussed?” Savage asked. “Maybe his father was sympathetic toward…Muslims who hate America.”

The Blacksburg tragedy dominated the cable and radio talk airwaves last week as no other story has all year, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index for April 15-20. The horrific slaughter consumed 63% of the airtime, narrowly eclipsing talk host’s Don Imus firing, which accounted for 61% of the talk menu the week before. (The Imus furor tumbled to 3% in the current Index.)

Virginia Tech was also the biggest news story of the year, filling about half of the newshole in our more general News Coverage Index. Like their counterparts in the rest of the media, talk hosts spent time pursuing the many significant news angles to the story—the action of campus authorities, mental health and student privacy, the background of the killer, and the mood on the traumatized campus. But because conflict and debate often provide the oxygen for the talk sector, some of the hosts—particularly those on radio—were mining some of the more divisive byproducts of the shooting.

Those subjects included gun control, the debate over NBC’s airing the killer’s video manifesto, and apparently, somehow even global terrorism. A rough breakdown of the talk shows examined by PEJ last week suggests that about one out of every four segments on the Virginia Tech shooting dealt with a political or polarizing aspect of the case.

As liberal radio host Ed Schultz noted, while discussing Virginia Tech on his April 17 show: “The advocates are out and about.”

Every other subject was overshadowed in the talk universe last week. The second biggest talk subject, at 5%, was another frightening shooting situation, albeit on a much smaller scale than Virginia Tech. The April 20 hostage drama that took two lives at the Johnson Space Center was strictly a cable, rather than radio, talk story with MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson providing almost all the coverage.

The third biggest talk story, also at 5%, involved the release of a controversial tape. Actor Alec Baldwin’s phone message calling his 11-year-old daughter a “rude thoughtless pig,” found its way to TMZ—a website devoted to celebrity and entertainment-industry scoops—and then into the media bloodstream. The Iraq policy debate (4%) was the next biggest subject followed by the Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote upholding a ban on the “partial birth” abortion procedure (4%). Abortion is among the most contentious of the “wedge” issues and only conservative radio talkers Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh tackled the court decision last week.

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 subject of gun control seemed in some ways like a natural outgrowth of the mayhem at Virginia Tech. It certainly got attention, but never really seemed to take off as a major theme of the general news coverage. Perhaps that’s because politicians seemed wary about weighing in on the issue and perhaps it’s because there were just too many basic angles of the story to cover.There was no such hesitation in the talk universe. Here the gun control debate got a pretty going over on the talk outlets.

On his April 18 radio show, Hannity accused the media of being “fixated on the issue of gun control,” an assertion unsupported by the evidence in our News Coverage Index. And he stated his position that there are “more instances…of people that are using weapons to protect the lives of the innocent. The fallacy here is that guns are the problem. It’s not. It’s the evil intention in the heart of somebody that does not respect a human life.”

On the same day, Rhodes attacked the argument that the Virginia Tech situation might have been mitigated had students been armed and able to stop the killer. “Bring back the pearl-handled pistol, mama,” she said sarcastically. “Give it to college kids. Has the right wing never seen video of spring break?”

Another topic that inspired an energetic talk debate was NBC’s decision to air the disturbing tape from Cho Seung Hui on April 18. Many other outlets were also quick to run excerpts of the controversial video. That fueled a debate over journalism versus sensationalism that appeared to cross typical partisan lines and talking points.

“We’re not going to play the audio of the Virginia Tech shooter on this program,” conservative Rush Limbaugh told his listeners on April 19. “The repeated replay of this stuff is literally nuts…Who is giving this killer the perverse legacy that he sought? It is not talk radio, ladies and gentlemen.”

Those sentiments were echoed by the liberal Schultz on his show that day. “If you’re looking for sound of this dude that killed everybody in Blacksburg Virginia, you got the wrong radio show,” he said. “What was NBC thinking?”

On his April 19 Fox News Channel show, Bill O’Reilly disagreed, arguing that the showing the video was a proper antidote to the crime. “I ran the tape last night and I’d do it again,” he said. “Here’s why. Evil must be exposed, and Cho was evil. You can see it in his face, and you can hear it in his voice…once evil is acknowledged, steps can be taken to contain it.”

Still, another view was offered by MSNBC host Joe Scarborough whose cable network is partly owned by NBC. After a long and rancorous April 19 discussion in which two of his three panelists opposed showing the tape, Scarborough endorsed it on basic First Amendment grounds. “I think that self-censorship on an issue this big, on a story this big, is just wrong,” he said.

As a week marred by unthinkable tragedy wound down, so too did the media coverage. TV outlets stopped airing excerpts of the video. News coverage shifted from assessing responsibility for the disaster to the chronicling the beginning of the healing process. Even the radio and cable talk hosts seemed ready to give it a rest.

On Friday April 20, not one of the talk shows the PEJ examined raised the subject in the first half hour.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ


Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Virginia Tech Shootings – 63%
2. NASA Shooting – 5%
3. Alec Baldwin Voice Mail – 5%
4. Iraq Policy Debate – 4%
5. Abortion – 4%
6. Fired US Attorneys Controversy – 3%
7. Don Imus – 3%
8. Events in Iraq – 2%
9. 2008 Campaign – 1%
10. Immigration – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Virginia Tech Shootings – 51%
2. Fired US Attorneys Controversy – 6%
3. Events in Iraq – 5%
4. Iraq Policy Debate – 3%
5. Abortion – 3%
6. Storms/Severe Weather – 3%
7. 2008 Campaign – 2%
8. NASA Shooting – 2%
9. Afghanistan – 1%
10. Alec Baldwin Voice Mail – 1%

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

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