Chris Matthews asserted that Rush Limbaugh's ratings have "doubled," echoing a claim by The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, who wrote in an article that Limbaugh's numbers "have nearly doubled since his feud with the White House burst into the media limelight." But the Post later reported that "there's no actual survey data to support such a figure." Moreover, Limbaugh himself has reportedly stated that the "latest numbers" he has seen for his show were for January, "well before this kerfuffle began."
On the March 8 edition of his NBC-syndicated television show, Chris Matthews discussed Rush Limbaugh's recent attacks on President Obama and said, "Limbaugh's numbers are doubled. Barack Obama's numbers are not doubling." Matthews' claim echoed a March 6 Washington Post article by Post media critic Howard Kurtz, who wrote, "By one measure, Rush Limbaugh is a clear winner this week: His ratings have nearly doubled since his feud with the White House burst into the media limelight." But the Post reported on March 7 that "there's no actual survey data to support such a figure," and that the sole source Kurtz cited as evidence for his claim admitted that his "research" was based on "what we're hearing" and "on the e-mails, the calls, all the buzz this controversy is generating," as Media Matters for America Senior Fellow Eric Boehlert noted. Moreover, as Boehlert also pointed out, Limbaugh reportedly told Washington Examiner chief political correspondent Byron York on March 6: "The latest [ratings] numbers I have are for January, well before this kerfuffle began."
The only evidence Kurtz offered to support his claim that Limbaugh's "ratings have nearly doubled" was a quote from Talkers magazine publisher Michael Harrison, whose "research" suggested that Limbaugh's ratings had grown dramatically in recent days:
"The people who love him are a very small segment of the public," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, whose research indicates that Limbaugh's weekly audience has spiked from 14.2 million to about 25 million since the controversy escalated. "A lot of people still think he's a shock jock, a hatemonger, a right-wing radical, or hold his personal baggage against him."
However, in a March 7 Post article, staff writer Paul Farhi reported that Harrison's "research" was "based on his discussions with station program directors around the country," and that there was "no actual survey data to support such a figure":
Figuring out the size of Limbaugh's flock "is an art, not a science," says Michael Harrison, the editor of Talkers magazine, a trade journal about the talk-radio field. "It's very hard to come up with an exact answer. It really reveals the embarrassing state of radio ratings."
Harrison's own calculation -- that Limbaugh typically attracts about 14.25 million listeners weekly -- is based on Arbitron figures from about 30 cities and spot checks of a similar number of stations. Harrison stands by his guess even though Limbaugh's program is heard on more than 600 stations across the country. "Once you get below the big markets, [the audience] doesn't add up to critical mass," he said.
Harrison said his estimate of a big spike in Limbaugh's audience this week -- some 25 million, a figure quoted in The Post -- was also based on his discussions with station program directors around the country. Although there's no actual survey data to support such a figure, Harrison said "it's what we're hearing, based on the e-mails, the calls, all the buzz this controversy is generating. We put a little bit of our interpretation on it, added it all up, and that puts you in the ballpark."
Farhi further reported that Arbitron, the leading audience-measurement company "has never publicly released a national estimate for Limbaugh, and it says, in effect, that the job is too complicated, expensive and time-consuming to bother with." Farhi explained:
The difficulty comes from the vast patchwork that is Limbaugh's radio empire. His three-hour daily program is carried on more than 600 domestic stations, but these stations don't all carry the show at the same time or even for the same duration. Most air all three hours of Limbaugh's broadcast each weekday, but some carry only two hours. Arbitron has never attempted to aggregate all of this audience data for this many stations and times. "There is no economic motivation for any objective third party to do that kind of analysis," says Thom Mocarsky, an Arbitron spokesman.
From the March 8 edition of NBC-syndicated The Chris Matthews Show:
MATTHEWS: You know who can talk? Limbaugh. You don't have to like the big guy, but you know what he does? He defends capitalism. But what he says is, "You, Mr. President, are out there raising taxes and getting rid of deductibility and itemization, and putting more injury on those of us you've already injured. You're hurting the people who are driving the truck."
CLARENCE PAGE (Chicago Tribune columnist): Right. And nobody believes that but ditto-heads. The fact is, Bush has already done the same darn thing. That argument isn't working right now. People know that government is in a spend mode. And by the way, you know we've been in more than a --
MATTHEWS: Limbaugh's numbers are doubled.
PAGE: -- more than a -- we've been in --
MATTHEWS: Barack Obama's numbers --
PAGE: That's his job.
MATTHEWS: -- are not doubling.
KATHLEEN PARKER (Washington Post Writers Group syndicated columnist): Yeah.
PAGE: Hey, that's his job, though.
PAGE: If you look at the numbers -- about 18 percent of the public agrees with Limbaugh. You don't win elections that way; you get radio ratings.