The political skirmishing over U.S. strategy in Iraq and the embryonic 2008 campaigns of Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton were what was buzzing on cable and talk radio airwaves last week, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index.

Together, the Iraq debate (31%) and White House race (17%) combined to fill about half the time in our talk show universe January 28 to February 2.

That concentration was yet another demonstration of something we have found all year, the tendency of the talk show culture to seize on and magnify a few hot issues in the news–in effect to narrow and intensify the news agenda more than broaden it. Although the Iraq debate and 2008 campaign also generated the most coverage in the media generally (about a quarter of the newshole in PEJ's broader News Coverage Index), they made up nearly double that in the talk shows.

This week’s look at the talk show universe also suggests how big a role the idiosyncratic agenda of a given talk show and host play in determining some of the secondary issues in talk. Three of the top 10 stories—the immigration debate (3%), the death of columnist Molly Ivins (3%), and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s infidelity confession (1%)—were each discussed by just a single host, but each did so at some length. In the talk world, even more than the media generally, news is in the eye of the beholder.

The treatment of other top stories, and sometimes whether they got talked about at all, also seemed to reflect the political leanings of the person behind the microphone. The level of interest in the 2008 presidential race last week, for instance, reflected in part the intense focus on Hillary Clinton, particularly among conservative talkers such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. The third biggest talk story, escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran (5%), in contrast, was a hotter topic for liberal radio hosts.

The discussion of the fifth biggest story, “Scooter” Libby’s perjury trial (4%), was driven by cable’s most left-leaning host, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann.

And in a week in which the big news was a UN report blaming humans for rising temperatures, global warming (sixth biggest talk story at 3%) was a favorite of conservative hosts attacking the theory.

The Talk Show Index, released each 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.

The 2008 presidential campaign, with Democrats commanding most of the attention, were big stories in both indices this week. Joe Biden’s gaffe—referring to Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean”—easily made him the primary subject of the general media coverage. Yet the talk hosts, despite that faux pas, spent as much time on Hillary Clinton as they did on Biden.

“As we roll along—the stop Hillary express,” is how Sean Hannity opened his January 30 radio show, promising his listeners, “more evidence Hillary is mean” as well as “examples of how she has no principles whatsoever on anything.”

Global warming was another subject that conservatives wanted to discuss last week. Six of seven talk segments on that subject were hosted by either Limbaugh or Hannity (on his radio show or his Fox News Channel show with liberal partner Alan Colmes.) They effectively dismissed the idea that it is happening.

Liberals had their pet topics, as well, but that differed. And sometimes that differed by medium. The intensifying war of words between the White House and Iran was a much bigger topic on cable (about 31 minutes) than talk radio (about 3 minutes) last week. That’s largely because it was only the liberal radio hosts, such as Randi Rhodes, who weighed in on the subject.

The host of MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” seized on the ongoing “Scooter” Libby trial to voice displeasure with the Bush administration. On his January 29 show, the liberal Olbermann declared that the case was “implicating the administration in a purposeful attempt to discredit critics,” and “also implicating it in a near-Nixonian paranoia regarding what is said about the administration in public.”

The three Top 10 news stories from the main news index that the talkers skipped last week were news events that did not easily lend themselves to some politically oriented controversy—the Boston bomb hoax, the death of the racehorse Barbaro, and the deadly tornados in Florida.

Those stories were replaced on the talk airwaves by three subjects favored by individual hosts.

As has now become a familiar pattern, CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight” was the only talk show on cable or radio to tackle the subject of immigration, which it did on three nights. The death of Molly Ivins was the eighth biggest talk show subject because Randi Rhodes devoted time on her February 1 radio show to pay tribute to the well-known liberal columnist.

It’s been a difficult few days for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. He publicly acknowledged having an affair with the wife of his campaign manager (and then subsequently announced he would get help for alcohol abuse.) This personal drama ended up on talk’s top 10 list thanks to conservative/contrarian San-Francisco-based radio host Michael Savage, who gave listeners his analysis of the situation.

“This is big stuff,” Savage said on his February 2 show. “This would be the equivalent of if President Bush had an affair with Karl Rove’s wife. This would be the equivalent of if Bill Clinton had an affair with Dick Morris’s wife.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ


Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 31%
2. 2008 Campaign – 17%
3. Iran – 5%
4. Events in Iraq – 5%
5. Libby Trial – 4%
6. Global Warming – 3%
7. Immigration – 3%
8. Molly Ivins Dies – 3%
9. Super Bowl – 2%
10. S.F. Mayor Affair – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 15%
2. 2008 Campaign – 9%
3. Events in Iraq – 6%
4. Iran – 6%
5. Global Warming – 5%
6. Libby Trial – 4%
7. Super Bowl – 3%
8. Boston Ad Scare – 3%
9. Florida Tornadoes – 3%
10. Barbaro – 2%

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