Several pieces of news from and about Iraq were quickly seized on by war skeptics and critics on the nation’s talk show airwaves last week.
On Aug. 22, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sharply criticized American politicians who had characterized his government as a failed enterprise. Later that day President Bush defended the war effort in a speech to war veterans invoking the divisive and touchy subject of Vietnam.
The next day, Senator John Warner, an influential Republican voice on foreign policy, said he favored bringing some troops home by as soon as Christmas. That same day the CIA released an intelligence estimate concluding that, despite some gains on the ground in Iraq, the al-Maliki regime seemed incapable of governing itself.
With the debate over Iraq policy and strategy generating major headlines after something of a summer lull, the talkers then went to work.
MSNBC “Hardball,” guest host Mike Barnicle used the Bush speech as a reason to devote the first five segments of the Aug. 22 show to Iraq. Reporter David Shuster opened his story with the following line: “Thirty five years after the United States was torn apart by the 58,000 troops killed in the Vietnam War, today President Bush reopened the wounds.” Schuster’s report, at several points, also took issue with Bush’s historical recollections of the Vietnam War and its ramifications in Southeast Asia.
That same evening, Lou Dobbs’ CNN show spent a segment discussing whether democracy was even the right fit for Iraq. In a pessimistic dispatch from Baghdad, correspondent Michael Ware reported that realities on the ground had U.S. officials softening expectations of what an Iraqi democracy might look like, “with some generals even warning that for now it might not even be the solution at all.”
On her radio program, liberal talker Randi Rhodes plumbed the parallels between Iraq and Vietnam and then took a swipe at the President. “I think if it was up to him we’d still be occupying the South, which in my opinion might not be such a bad thing,” Rhodes argued. “Quite frankly if we were still occupying Texas we could have avoided the whole Bush presidency.”
With war doubters driving the conversation, the Iraq policy debate filled 21% of the airtime last week, making it the leading topic on the cable and radio talk shows, as measured in PEJ’s Talk Show Index August 19 – 24. That’s the first time since the week of July 15-20, when Democrats held an Iraq debate all-nighter, that the subject topped the talk menu.
The 2008 presidential campaign, which had been the leading talk story for the last several weeks, was next with 16% of the talk time. A variety of campaign topics filled the time, with particular attention paid to remarks from Michelle Obama, wife of Democratic candidate Barack Obama, who said “if you can’t run your own house you certainly can’t run the White House.” The comment was largely seen as a shot across the bow of Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
A range of issues touching on the immigration debate filled 9% of the talk time. Hurricane Dean, a powerful storm that hit Mexico, got 5%. And the aftermath of the execution-style killings of three teenagers in Newark back on August 4 received 5%.
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.
The talk show chatter was overwhelmingly critical of the war in Iraq last week. But that wasn’t the only argument being made. On his Aug. 22 show, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh lauded the Vietnam speech as an important “history lesson.”
“The President was on fire today at the VFW convention in Kansas City,” Limbaugh said enthusiastically. “He said, essentially, ‘all right you want to compare Iraq to Vietnam, let’s compare Iraq to Vietnam,’ and he went on a tear about the millions of people who lost their lives, innocent people, when we left Vietnam.”
One hot topic that finished just below the week’s top-five story roster was Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and his guilty plea to animal cruelty charges. The story captured only 4% of the talk time. Considering the various elements of the saga—a celebrity athlete in trouble, salacious details, and animal rights—one might have expected the story to have a higher profile in the talk world. Why were the numbers so low?
For one thing, there, there wasn’t really much to debate on the dog fighting charges in terms of guilt or innocence. There also weren’t a lot of policy implications in the fiasco and Vick’s actions were widely seen as reprehensible.
The one area that did briefly generate some discussion was whether Vick, as a black athlete, was treated differently than his white counterparts would have been.
The Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly waded into that question on Aug. 21 when his guest, Professor Marc Lamont Hill of Temple, argued that Vick was the victim of a double standard. O’Reilly begged to differ.
“What about Pete Rose though?” O’Reilly said. “I don’t think the court of public opinion was kind to Mr. Rose when the gambling charges were leveled against him. And surely now he doesn’t have much a constituency, so I’m not sure your analysis is correct there.”
On Aug. 23, Limbaugh, devoted some time to the Vick case, but also illustrated how difficult it could be to find traction.
First, he talked about fatally injured Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro after a caller compared the killing of fighting dogs to euthanizing a horse. “Just because [horses] lose we don’t cordon them off there on the track and ‘bang, bang you’re dead,’ which is what Vick and his boys were doing,” said Limbaugh.
That segued into a conversation about the sometimes violent methods of meat production and Limbaugh’s childhood visit to a pig slaughterhouse, at which point the host noted: “But we don’t raise pigs to kill each other. We don’t do pig fights.”
There are obviously easier topics for talk hosts than the Michael Vick case.
Dante Chinni and Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ
Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index1. Iraq Policy Debate – 21% 2. 2008 Campaign – 16%
3. Immigration – 9% 4. Hurricane Dean – 5% 5. Newark Murders – 5% 6. Michael Vick – 4%
7. US Domestic Terror Threat – 3% 8. CIA Report – 2% 9. Midwest Flooding – 2% 10. Toy Recalls – 2%
Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index1. Iraq Policy Debate – 12% 2. Hurricane Dean – 8% 3. 2008 Campaign – 7%
4. Midwest Flooding – 7% 5. Events in Iraq – 5% 6. US Economic Numbers – 4% 7. Michael Vick – 4% 8. Immigration – 3% 9. Utah Mine Accident – 3% 10. CIA Report – 2%
Click here to read the methodology behind the Talk Show Index.