On the day the House approved a timetable for Iraq withdrawal, the MSNBC “Hardball” debate between war critic Mike Barnicle and supporter Ron Christie got heated and personal.

“The idea that you might think that the American military’s mission on the ground is the same as the mission of the Iraqi government…that’s sad,” declared Barnicle. 

“Don’t you want stability?” answered Christie. “In other words, we should just pull out now and we should just let Al Qaeda win?”  

“That’s so lame, Ron, the Al Qaeda thing,” said Barnicle. 

“That’s not lame,” snapped Christie. “Mike, you can’t even express how you define success in Iraq.” 

“Stirring debate tonight,” observed host Chris Matthews as he separated the combatants. 

Whether the subject is Iraq policy, the fired U.S. attorneys, or even global warming, cable and radio talkshows—if the last week  is any measure—tend to stoke the big stories of the week with a formula that relies heavily on personal invective along with the politics.  Sometimes, as with the March 23 “Hardball” face-off, a topic as familiar as Iraq is infused with the energy and anger by a polarizing exchange of attacks. Sometimes a complex story is boiled down to a key player becoming a personification of the issue—and often, a subject of criticism or scorn. And sometimes, the level of debate here has nothing to do with the issue at all, as with conservative radio host Michael Savage’s March 20 reference to Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman as “Nostrilman.”   

For the second week in a row, the political showdown over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys—particularly the uncertain status of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales—was the biggest talk topic. It filled 29% of the airtime, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index from March 18-23.  

Fueled by the House Democrats’ narrow victory in passing an Iraq exit deadline, the debate over Iraq was the second biggest talk topic (at 22%). The third hottest subject (at 9%) was the 2008 Presidential race.  

It was the week’s fourth biggest talk story—global warming at 8%–that most clearly reflected talk’s proclivity to turn the political into the personal. The debate about global warming was really a conversation about one man, former vice-president Al Gore, who appeared before Congress last week to declare that that “the planet has a fever.” Much of the conversation about the former vice president took the form of Gore goring by conservative radio talkers. 

Rush Limbaugh summed up the state of the environmental debate this way on his March 21 show: “Former vice-president Al Gore pulling shenanigans before a House Committee today looking into global warming.” 

“I’m gonna chronicle all his hypocrisy…It’s so arrogant, it’s unbelievable,” declared Sean Hannity on his March 21 radio show as he played clips of Gore’s testimony. “As typical for Gore, the rules don’t apply to him.”  

When Hannity aired a snippet of Gore getting emotional in his discussion of global warming, the host also added a sound effect—the unmistakable wail of an unhappy baby.

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.

Despite indications that the public is paying some but not intense attention to the U.S. attorneys saga—The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press finds only 8% identifying it as story they were following most closely—the subject has attracted tremendous media interest. In each of the past two weeks it has been the top overall news story. And it is the second biggest story recorded by the Index since its launch in January. After surfacing as the hottest talk topic (at 21%) two weeks ago, that number grew to 29% of the talk menu last week.

A complicated Beltway battle, (46% of the Pew Research Center respondents found it “boring”), the most visible symbol of the U.S. attorneys story to date is embattled Attorney General Gonzales, whose job appears to hang in the balance. Not surprisingly, he has become a focal point of the talk debate, and particularly among the liberal talkers who seem to be rooting for his ouster.

MSNBC’s “Countdown” host Keith Olbermann, who likes to refer to the story as “Gonzales-gate,” mocked a sound bite of Gonzales saying he would remain on the job and “stay focused on protecting our kids.”

“While Mr. Gonzales was out protecting the kids,” Olbermann said on his March 22 show, “the presence of his former chief of staff was being cordially requested on Capitol Hill.”

Substituting for Randi Rhodes on March 23, radio host Stacy Taylor had his own way of translating the U.S. attorneys story into talk-ese. “I must say that I’m becoming more and more intrigued with ‘Gonzo-gate,’ having a lot more fun with ‘Gonzo-gate,’” he said. “The more you get into it, the more interesting it gets.”

On her show that aired March 19, Rhodes’s method for launching a discussion of the situation in Iraq was to turn her guns on Laura Bush. The trigger was the First Lady’s statement in a Larry King interview that many parts of Iraq are stable. “But, of course, what we see on television is the one bombing a day that discourages everybody.”

Rhodes wasted little time in reacting to that with an ad hominem attack. “I think she had a face lift because she looks good and crazier than ever,” said Rhodes of the woman she has dubbed “Crazy eyes Laura Bush.”

Yet, for all that, there are times when talk hosts give short shrift to the important and obvious personal angle to a big story. The sad revelation last week that Elizabeth Edward’s cancer had returned in a serious form was a substantial element in more than half of the 2008 campaign stories examined in PEJ’s overall News Coverage Index of the media generally.  

But the talk shows avoided a story that was personal but not ideological. Only about one-third of the 21 campaign-related talk segments last week focused on Elizabeth Edwards’ news, according to the Index. That suggests that there are indeed some subjects that don’t lend themselves to talk’s sharp-elbowed debates.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Fired US Attorney Controversy – 29%
2. Iraq Policy Debate – 22%
3. Campaign 2008 – 9%
4. Global Warming – 8%
5. Events in Iraq – 5%
6. Iran – 3%
7. Iraq Homefront – 2%
8. Immigration – 1%
9. General War on Terror – 1%
10. Congressional Corruption – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Fired US Attorney Controversy – 18%
2. Iraq Policy Debate – 12%
3. Events in Iraq – 9%
4. 2008 Campaign – 7%
5. Iraq Homefront – 4%
6. Iran – 3%
7. Global Warming – 3%
8. Immigration – 3%
9. Boy Scout Found in North Carolina – 2%
10. US Economic Numbers – 2%

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