In a week busy with a number of competing news stories, three subjects dominated the talk show universe, according to the PEJ Talk Show Index from January 21-January 26.

The debate over Iraq policy, the 2008 presidential race, and Bush’s January 23 State of the Union speech combined to fill nearly two-thirds of the air time on the cable and radio talk shows, continuing a pattern that has emerged in the first few weeks of the Index—that of a handful of stories getting most of the space.

In filling a distinctive niche, the talk shows seem to function as megaphone rather than as a reporter’s notebook. Hosts tend not to develop their own stories, but to cherry pick hot topics from the news menu that they can amplify and magnify. Although the same three subjects that led the Talk Show Index also attracted the most news coverage last week, they dominated talk far more—accounting for 63% of talk time versus 39% of the overall newshole. As has consistently been the case in recent weeks, the debate over Iraq strategy was the most discussed subject, filling 23% of the talk output.

But the big trend has been the growing interest in the 2008 campaign, which recently saw the entrance of two Democratic stars—Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Two weeks ago, the race to succeed Bush was nowhere to be found on the talk Index. It surged to 11% in last week’s Index and has now doubled to 22%, very nearly overtaking the war debate.

The President’s speech accounted for somewhat less of the talkers’ time, 18%.

The Talk Show Index, which will be released every Friday, 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, which is released every Tuesday and measures the subjects covered in a week by 48 different outlets from five American media sectors.

The fourth biggest talk show story in the Index was Scooter Libby’s perjury trial, which at 4% lagged well behind the top stories. This outgrowth of the complex Valerie Plame case was a favorite of MSNBC hosts who openly wondered about the level of involvement on the part of Dick Cheney.

The continuing interest of two oversized cable talk personalities (CNN’s Lou Dobbs and the Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly) was responsible for the fifth and sixth biggest talk stories—the immigration debate, at 3%, and the kidnapped Missouri teens, at 3%. Neither of those stories made the top-10 list on the broader News Coverage Index for the week of January 21-26.

Two weeks ago, the debate over Iraq strategy occurred almost solely on the cable shows, with radio hosts largely opting out. But last week, it raged on both platforms.

One interesting bellwether was conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who often hews to the official party line. On January 25, Limbaugh blasted a Senate committee resolution opposing the “surge” by noting that “it happened the same day the same committee unanimously confirmed General Petraeus” as top Iraq commander. (Some “surge” supporters are arguing that the much-admired Petraeus, not the unpopular Bush, is the real author of that strategy.)

But Michael Savage—a conservative radio talker who is more contrarian than Limbaugh—took a dramatically different tack, angrily declaring on January 23 that “as long as it’s [someone else’s] son” that is fighting, “the blowhards in the radio are all for increased war.”

The talk show conversation about the 2008 presidential campaign last week, was virtually all-Hilary, all-the-time. (Senator John Kerry’s decision not to reprise his 2004 run attracted a little attention.) Of the 29 talk segments studied by PEJ, the former First Lady, who announced her candidacy on January 20, was a main subject in at least 21.

Conservative radio hosts Limbaugh, Hannity and Savage were eager to raise doubts about Clinton. But in what could perhaps be a reflection of ambivalence about her positions or of the dilemma of choosing between her and Barack Obama, liberal radio hosts were largely silent on her candidacy. (That includes the most left-leaning cable talker, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann.)

Liberal talkers, however, particularly radio host Randi Rhodes, were willing to jump on the President’s State of the Union speech, which was a much more popular topic on radio (about 76 minutes of discussion) than cable (only 33 minutes) last week. Rhodes and fellow liberal talker Ed Schultz, for example, combined for three straight days of speech preview and critique.

No cable personality is more closely associated with a single issue than CNN’s Dobbs, whose hard-line views on immigration are a leitmotif of his show. Last week, he was responsible for 11 out of 12 talk segments on the subject

On his January 24 program—after a segment about the Tennessee National Guard being honored for avoiding a confrontation with infiltrators at the Mexican border—an incredulous Dobbs theatrically cocked his head and said: “Excuse me? Who’s giving them an award for withdrawing?”

The Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly was the only host last week to continue to devote time to the two kidnapped teens. A week earlier, O’Reilly ruffled feathers by appearing to take a hard line on the boy who had spent about four years in captivity, claiming: “The Stockholm Syndrome thing, I don’t buy it.”

On his January 24 show, O’Reilly revisited the issue and discussed a report—one he acknowledged he couldn’t confirm—that the boy had helped his captor kidnap another teenager. O’Reilly then reiterated his skepticism about ”Stockholm Syndrome” in a conversation with a guest who said the boy was more likely suffering from an “accommodation syndrome.”

Another subject that generated attention in the talk universe (seventh place at 2%) while failing to register on our broader Index of news coverage was the controversy over Jimmy Carter’s new book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Some critics have accused Carter of being anti-Israeli and even anti-Semitic. And though a hoped-for debate between Carter and Alan Dershowitz did not materialize during Carter’s January 23 appearance at Brandeis, MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson did convene his own debate panel on January 26 to discuss whether Carter had damaged his legacy.

Making sure things didn’t end on too substantive a note, Carlson concluded a somewhat inconclusive segment by declaring: “I sort of feel sorry for [Carter] simply because he is so old.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ


Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 23%
2. 2008 Campaign – 22%
3. Bush's State of the Union Speech – 18%
4. Libby Trial – 4%
5. Immigration Debate – 3%
6. Kidnapped Teens – 3%
7. Jimmy Carter Controversy – 2%
8. Iran – 2%
9. Lebanon Protests – 2%
10. Events in Iraq – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 13%
2. Iraq Policy Debate – 13%
3. Bush's State of the Union Speech – 13%
4. Events in Iraq – 9%
5. Libby Trial – 3%
6. Lebanon Protests – 2%
7. Afghanistan – 2%
8. Iran – 1%
9. Ford Company Reports Record Loss – 1%
10. Health Care Debate – 1%

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