On his April 5 show, radio host Michael Savage ripped House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a segment he called “Damascus Does Nancy.”  

“She was gutsy enough to make the sign of the Cross in a mosque,” Savage said. “But she was not gutsy enough to make the sign of the bird to Assad.” 

On April 3, Rush Limbaugh offered his view of Pelosi’s motivation. “She’s over there trying to undermine the United States,” (Limbaugh’s emphasis) he said. “She’s the queen bee.’ 

The same subject was at the core of an April 6 shout fest on the Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes.” Democratic commentator Jane Fleming lauded Pelosi for doing “exactly what the Iraqi study group said to do…to engage in a dialogue with Syria…” Republican pundit Amy Holmes countered that Pelosi “tried to usurp the power of the executive branch to conduct foreign policy.” 

If ever a subject was a sure bet to get the attention of the talk hosts, who live on controversy, it was a politically polarizing figure (Pelosi) talking to a distrusted foreign leader (Assad), who has been ostracized by an unpopular president (Bush) on issues at the heart of this country’s divisive foreign policy (the war on terror and the conflict in Iraq).

Last week was a crowded one in the talk show universe. Iran released its British hostages, Senator John McCain decried media coverage of Iraq, and the presidential candidates revealed their fundraising prowess. All of these were big topics. But Pelosi’s Damascus dialogue got significant air play, twice as much in talk radio as it did in the news media overall. It filled 10% of the airtime on the cable and radio talk shows, making it the fourth biggest topic of the week, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index for April 1 through April 6.  

For the first time since mid-February, the Iraq policy debate (at 19%) was the top talk topic of the week. It edged out the conflict with Iran (18%) which was punctuated by the release of the captive Brits. The 2008 battle for the White House was next at 16%. This is also the second week in a row—but only the second time since the Talk Index began in January—that four different subjects each filled at least 10% of the talk newshole.

Taking a closer look at which hosts chose to tackle the Pelosi trip also reveals a basic tenet of the talk show culture. It was a bigger story on radio (about 38 minutes) than on cable (about 30 minutes). And it was overwhelming the conservative hosts who were critical of Pelosi—such as Limbaugh, Savage, and Sean Hannity—who spent time on the issue while their liberal counterparts were silent. 

What’s the moral of the story? In the talk business, it’s much easier to play offense than defense. That also helps explain why conservative radio talkers have been relatively silent about the U.S. attorneys scandal engulfing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

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.

Talk show interest in the investigation of the fired U.S. attorneys fell sharply last week, as was the case with PEJ’s general News Coverage Index. The story, which was the leading talk topic for the last three weeks in March, dropped to just 2% of the talk time, putting it in seventh place among topics. Only the cable hosts devoted time to an issue that seems to be on the back burner until Gonzales’s much anticipated April 17 appearance before Congress.

On the April 5 edition of CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” correspondent Brian Todd provided a sense of those April 17 stakes, at least from the AG’s perspective. He reported that Gonzales “is now hunkered down preparing for it. Justice officials tell us he is staying behind closed doors, cancelling a family vacation and will go through mock grilling sessions, possibly with outside legal advisors.”  

Both the conflict with Iran and the Iraq policy debate got serious attention in both the cable and radio talk sectors.

When it comes to the debate over Iraq, the April 2 monologues of liberal Randi Rhodes and conservative Sean Hannity served as proxies for the most basic, boiled-down anti-administration and pro-administration views of the conflict:  “The war is a costly quagmire” versus “We can win if we remain steadfast.” 

On her April 2 show, Rhodes used John McCain’s trip to Baghdad to attack the GOP presidential hopeful’s assertions that the security situation on the ground has improved.

“The safe streets of Iraq?” Rhodes declared. “John McCain took his little stroll wearing armor…John McCain had more bodyguards with him than P. Diddy getting to the MTV Awards.” 

Conversely, Hannity took aim at the Democrats’ legislative efforts to reverse President Bush’s course in Iraq.

“Harry Reid…and his fellow Democrats are prepared to leave our troops on the battlefield without food, without equipment, without bullets, without reinforcements and the ability to defeat the enemy,” he declared. 

The connection between the Iraq war and the global battle against terrorism was the focus of another political dispute last week that helped make the war on terror the eighth biggest talk topic at 2%.

The subject arose from a memo advising Democrats not to use the phrase “global war on terrorism” to describe the situation in Iraq because it falsely links that conflict to the struggle against Al Qaeda. Republicans vocally disagreed.

Some hosts were quick to pounce on that memo.  On his April 4 show, Limbaugh mocked the idea that “there is no war on terror” and accused Democrats of “doing their best to convince everybody there is no reason for a war on terror.”

It was another example of how in the talk universe, offense trumps defense.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ


Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 19%
2. Iran – 18%
3. 2008 Campaign – 16%
4. Pelosi Trip to the Middle East – 10%
5. Global Warming – 3%
6. Immigration – 3%
7. Fired US Attorney Controversy – 2%
8. War on Terror General – 2%
9. US Economic Numbers – 2%
10. Democratic-led Congress – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Iran – 13%
2. 2008 Campaign – 10%
3. Iraq Policy Debate – 9%
4. Global Warming – 5%
5. Pelosi Trip to the Middle East – 5%
6. Events in Iraq – 4%
7. Solomon Islands Tsunami – 2%
8. Iraq Homefront – 2%
9. Immigration – 2%
10. US Economic Numbers – 2%

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