Every week since PEJ launched its regular examination of cable and radio talk show content in January, one subject has been the hottest topic on the talk agenda. 

Last week was no exception. The debate over what the United States should do about its troops in Iraq again dominated the culture of talk, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index for February 11-16. This time it made up 24% of the air time, the third highest percentage since the Index began.           

There were plenty of other hot-button issues that got chewed over. The tawdry tabloid tangles left behind by Anna Nicole Smith came second, commanding 13% of the time (nearly all of it on cable TV). A 2008 presidential race in high gear 20 months before Election Day came next (at 11%). The unnerving prospect of a U.S war with Iran filled 8% of the time in a week when U.S. officials were trying—with some difficulty—to make a case that weapons from Teheran were killing troops in Iraq. 

Yet, a close look at how major stories play out on talk outlets helps explain how the Iraq debate is such a tailor-made topic for both the radio and cable components of the opinion-driven talk culture. 

For starters, some stories that got significant coverage last week in the media generally—such as the brutal winter weather or the major nuclear deal with North Korea—got little or no traction on the talk shows because there’s no obvious ideological or philosophical angle. The less-than-1% of time devoted to the winter storms seems to debunk the old joke that “everybody loves to talk about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”     

A number of top stories were popular in only one part of the talk universe while all but ignored in the other. The Anna Nicole saga, for example, generated about 87 minutes of cable TV talk and less than 4 minutes on radio. U.S./Iran tensions, the “Scooter” Libby” trial (3% in the talk Index), and the immigration issue (4%) were also much more popular on TV.  

The story about the implications of the Iraq war on the U.S. homefront, conversely, (3%) was the sole province of a few radio talkers interested in sounding off on the U.S. plan to admit 7,000 Iraqi refugees.  

The race for the White House consumed a significant amount of talk time. But some of that conversation seemed tangential last week, such as the controversy over Rush Limbaugh’s suggestion that Barack Obama renounce his race and another host's denigrating comments about the physical appearance of some of the candidates’ wives. 

Only when it came to the issue of U.S. strategy in Iraq, did you really get a full-throated, substantial debate (approximately 69 minutes on radio and 94 on cable). It seems both liberals and conservatives find grist for motivating their audience base, attacking the opposition and scrambling to stake out the moral high ground on a polarizing subject that offers numerous angles for exploration. 

On the February 16 edition of Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes”—the day the House passed a resolution rebuking Bush’s “surge” —the argument was about Democrats’ tactics and intentions. Conservative co-host Sean Hannity called the non-binding resolution “a stealth plan to defund the war.”   

But the day before, liberal radio host Randi Rhodes found in the Congressional maneuvering reason to denounce conservatives. She was angry at the efforts of Senate Republicans who were preventing vote on a similar resolution in that body. “The Senate is like on the verge of anarchy,” she decried. “They’re not even participating in the American experiment of democracy.”

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.

Typically, the talk Index has found that the hosts tend to focus on a few select stories that receive major media attention and then use their microphones to magnify those topics. That’s certainly the case with the Iraq policy debate, which last week attracted 11% of the overall news coverage, but filled nearly a quarter of the talk time studied. (On the radio talk shows, that subject accounted for almost 30% of the conversation.)

Why is the issue so popular? With so many key players and critical news developments, it works on a cable talk format that frequently relies on guest interviews to either illuminate or enflame a conversation. At the same time, it’s adaptable to the radio side of talk, which is driven almost entirely a host’s own passions and prejudices along with a fresh supply of events capable of sparking anger or support.

Thus, the February 15 edition of “Hardball,” was a forum for Democratic presidential hopeful Joseph Biden to pitch his complex and not very popular plan for an Iraq “federal” system that would separate the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish sectors.

“It’s hard for Congress to lay out a foreign policy,” Biden admitted, while maintaining that “the federal system is the only way out.”

On February 12, it was Michael Savage, a conservative radio host with a contrarian streak, who claimed that Bush “lost his nerve” in prosecuting the war in Iraq.

“The man started a war, he picked a fight, and he doesn’t know how to end it,” Savage bellowed, voicing sentiments that probably managed to simultaneously infuriate and hearten people on both sides of the war debate.

For all the media’s fascination with the Anna Nicole saga—which shows little sign of abating—there’s simply not nearly as much fodder for the talk menu—especially on radio.

Why the difference? Not being able to show pictures of Anna Nicole on radio might be part of the explanation. Not being focused on court hearings and coroner press conferences is another. And it would take a pretty creative host to find a clear moral in this messy tale.

Indeed, only one radio talker studied by PEJ could figure out an Anna Nicole angle worth bringing up. Liberal Ed Schultz attacked the media feeding frenzy. He wanted more coverage of Iraq.

“How many Americans actually know we lost four service men and women in Iraq the day that [Smith] tipped over?” he asked. “Where’s the fair coverage of that? Where’s our priorities?”  

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 24%
2. Anna Nicole Smith – 13%
3. Campaign 2008 – 11%
4. Iran – 8%
5. Immigration – 4%
6. Events in Iraq – 3%
7. Libby Trial – 3%
8. Iraq War Homefront – 3%
9. North Korea – 2%
10. General War on Terror – 2%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 11%
2. Campaign 2008 – 9%
3. Iran – 7%
4. Severe Weather – 7%
5. Events in Iraq – 7%
6. Anna Nicole Smith – 6%
7. North Korea – 6%
8. Libby Trial – 3%
9. Iraq Homefront – 2%
10. Afghanistan – 2%

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