To a great extent, the health care debate
was a talk show story, getting the most attention
from the ideological cable and radio hosts

As an issue that featured the three p’s—it was political, passionate and partisan—the health care debate seemed tailor-made for the cable and radio talk shows that thrive on argument and ideology. The numbers bear that out. 

In the talk show sector, the subject was more than twice as big as it was in the media overall, filling 31% of the airtime from June 2009 through March 2010 versus 14% generally. On those shows, no other subject was deemed nearly as newsworthy. The No. 2 talk story in that time frame was the economy, all the way back at 7%.

The talkers’ interest dwarfed the level of attention the health care debate generated in other media sectors. In the 10-month period studied, health care, for instance, accounted for 10% of the newshole in newspapers and on network news and 9% of the coverage in the online sector.

The talk hosts’ attention to health care also stands in contrast to their interest in the other major domestic issue in the past year. A PEJ study examining how the recession was covered in Obama’s first seven months in office found that the cable and radio talk hosts paid less attention to that story than newspapers, the nightly network newscasts and the online sector. That suggests that once the big political battle over the $787 billion stimulus package was resolved, the economy story did not fit so neatly into the ideological debate template of these shows.

A month-by-month breakdown of health care coverage in the talk show sector reveals a major increase during the dog days of summer. In August, when the town hall protests exploded, 60% of all the talk show airtime was devoted to health care. (The second-biggest talk show topic, terrorism, was at 5% that month). In September, health care filled 39% of their airtime, and in October, it was still high at 30%.

In December, the month in which Senate Democrats passed a version of health care reform, health care had another big month in the talk shows, filling 35% of the airtime. And then in March 2010, when the climactic legislative showdown occurred, talk show coverage leaped to 55%, double the amount of attention the subject got in the media overall (27%).