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PEJ Talk Show Index: March 17 – 23, 2008

For once, the fractious fraternity of talk show hosts was united about something last week—Barack Obama’s ability to put words together.

“His speech was excellent,”

declared conservative MSNBC commentator Pat Buchanan, after Obama’s March 18 speech on race designed to quell the furor over the inflammatory rhetoric of his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Sitting next to Buchanan, African-American radio host Joe Madison concurred, calling it “an outstanding speech.”

On Dan Abrams’ MSNBC program, Democratic strategist Laura Schwartz declared it “an amazing speech in a great context.” Her counterpart, conservative commentator Tucker Carlson characterized it as “a smart speech…an interesting speech.”

On his radio show, liberal host Ed Schultz gushed that Obama’s address had “taken it to another level.” Across the dial, even conservative talk powerhouse Rush Limbaugh called it “flowery and fabulous and well-delivered”—without much hint of mockery.

If it seemed like Obama’s big speech—often characterized as his most important of the campaign—was the only subject on pundits’ minds last week, that’s not far wrong. According to PEJ’s Talk Show Index for March 17-23, the presidential campaign accounted for an astounding 83% of all the airtime on the cable and talk radio shows examined. (That more than doubled the 39% of the general newshole filled by the campaign.) And last week, the focus on the campaign trail was on the Obama/Wright relationship and the Illinois Senator’s effort to try and explain it. (A new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found the public has paid more attention to the Wright sermons and the Obama speech than to any other campaign-related events.)

But despite widespread appreciation for Obama’s rhetorical skills across the ideological spectrum, there were significant differences in the talk show world over its substance. And those differences centered on Wright, whose racially divisive and anti-American sentiments were widely disseminated on video in recent days. That created an environment in which Obama apparently felt the risk of not responding to those words outweighed the potential downside of bringing the issue front and center in a major address.

When the speech was over, supporters thought Obama had candidly and convincingly repudiated Wright’s divisive rhetoric in a bold discussion of race. Detractors insisted he had not gone far enough to distance himself from a man they deemed hateful and dangerous.

Declaring Wright’s role is “to sow hatred…to make people fear their government,” Carlson added: “Here’s Barack Obama defending him…How can you defend that?”

“Jeremiah Wright is a hatemonger. He hates America,” added Limbaugh. “It is patently obvious Barack Obama sought to excuse that today in ways that I found a little bit troubling.”

Others saw the speech, not as troubling, but as uplifting. And it didn’t break down completely along party lines. On Fox, former Republican Congressman and presidential candidate Jack Kemp said, “I thought he gave a wonderful speech…I…don’t believe in guilt by association.”

“This is Senator Obama just tellin’ it like it is about Reverend Wright,” said Schultz. “He always seems to find a higher ground.”

Appearing on MSNBC, actress and social commentator Nancy Giles called the speech “a very honest and necessary conversation” about race relations.

PEJ’s Talk Show Index 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 six prime time cable shows and five radio talk hosts and is a subset of our News Coverage Index.

In assessing reaction to the Obama speech, it is worth noting that in the often black-and-white world of talk shows, some pundits did deliver a more neutral and dispassionate verdict. On MSNBC, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, tried to parse the speech from a purely political angle. While acknowledging that “it was masterfully put together,” Fineman noted that “it’s a risky maneuver cause he embraced, in the end, Reverend Wright…Did this speech win over any of the voters he did not have?”

One talk host who offered a distinctly nuanced review was the Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly. On his March 18 show, O’Reilly said “the senator’s speech was a mixed deal,” noting that “he was right that race remains an unresolved problem in America…The senator is also correct when he said Rev. Wright’s anti-American statements were misguided and driven by an obsolete view of he country.” On the other hand, added O’Reilly, “Obama was weak in explaining why he continues to publicly support Wright.”

Summing up, O’Reilly called Obama “a positive force in America, but many questions remain about him.”

It’s not likely they all got answered in last week’s pundit post-mortems.

Cable Coverage and the Wright Stuff

While the cable and radio talk shows devoted 83% of their time to the campaign last week, that was nearly matched by the cable news universe, which turned over 73% of its newshole to the election. (That broader cable universe includes the prime-time talk shows, but other prime-time news programming and some daytime news coverage as well.)

Among the three major cable news networks, the differences in amount of election coverage last week were relatively modest. MSNBC, with its heavy emphasis on politics, spent 82% of its time on the campaign compared to 71% for CNN and 68% for the Fox News Channel, according to the programs examined in PEJ’s News Coverage Index.

When it came to the percentage of total airtime the cable nets devoted specifically to the Wright/Obama controversy, one network did stand out. While CNN spent 25% and MSNBC devoted 24% of their total news coverage to that subject, the Fox News Channel was considerably more focused on that story. Fox spent 43% of its airtime talking about the Wright/Obama furor last week.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 39%
2. U.S. Economy – 16%
3. China – 5%
4. Iraq Policy Debate – 5%
5. Midwest Storms – 4%
6. Events in Iraq – 3%
7. Iraq Homefront – 2%
8. Spitzer Scandal / New York Governor – 2%
9. Supreme Court Actions – 1%
10. War on Terror – 1%

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

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