Even though talk hosts enjoy a great deal of editorial license, several radio talkers found out last week that there still boundaries that can't be crossed without consequences.
Liberal talker Ed Schultz provoked controversy and a rebuke from Barack Obama, after Schultz called John McCain a “warmonger” during an April 4 North Dakota fundraiser at which Obama spoke. (Obama's campaign disavowed those remarks, just as McCain criticized conservative radio host Bill Cunningham in February for using a GOP rally to call Obama a “hack” and repeatedly use his middle name, Hussein.)
Another liberal host, Randi Rhodes—no fan of Hillary Clinton—got in even deeper when she used profanity to describe the former First Lady during a stand-up routine in San Francisco in late March. Air America Radio, Rhodes' employer, suspended her for those remarks last week. Then, on April 10, Air America announced Rhodes' decision to leave the liberal talk network where she was one of the top names.
While both Schultz and Rhodes ran into trouble for words uttered outside their talk studios, they also sounded off on their day jobs. On her March 31 program, Rhodes attacked Clinton's recollection—later acknowledged to be inaccurate—about dodging sniper fire during a 1996 flight to Bosnia. Referring to the CBS footage that refuted Clinton's account, Rhodes called her story a “big stinkin' lie…Every single solitary airport landing I have ever had has been more traumatic than what I saw on the video in Tuzla.”
A day later, Schultz spoke about money problems in the Clinton campaign and warned that the “prolonged presidential primary [is] starting to deplete some of the resources for some of these other races” in the 2008 campaign. That's an argument used by some who are trying to persuade the New York Senator to drop out in the interests of party unity and success.
But any suggestion that Clinton depart the race at this point was anathema to radio host Rush Limbaugh. “Why should she end her campaign?” he asked on March 31. “It's America. Let every vote count.” Limbaugh—a staunch conservative and frequent Clinton critic—has his own motives. He has been touting his “Operation Chaos,” which involves urging Republicans to cross over and vote for Clinton as a way of keeping the Democratic primary fight from being resolved and preventing the party from unifying.
Last week, the presidential campaign—with its focus on the Obama-Clinton battle—dominated the talk show airwaves. According to PEJ's Talk Show Index for the week of March 31-April 6, a full 72% of cable and radio talk airtime examined was devoted to the campaign. (You had to drop all the way down to 3% to find the next biggest topic, immigration.) That's more than double the media attention given to the campaign (32% of the newshole) in the general News Index last week.
Read the full report Talkers in Trouble for Trashing the Candidates on the Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.