The day after the May 3 Republican presidential debate in California, the verdict starting rolling in on America’s talk shows. 

On his May 4 radio program, conservative bellwether Rush Limbaugh offered “some preliminary comments” that seemed to bode well for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. “I thought Romney looked Reagan-esque,” offered Limbaugh. “He was very articulate and quick.” 

As for the two Republican candidates atop the early polls, Limbaugh seemed unimpressed. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani “did stumble a bit” on the abortion question, he said, and Arizona Senator John McCain “to me, didn’t quite measure up.” 

That night on the Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes,” Republican strategist Karen Hanretty seemed to feel largely the same way. Giuliani, she asserted, “can’t have it both ways” on the abortion question. “He is a pro-choice candidate. He should simply run as a pro-choice candidate.” 

The assessment of McCain was harsher. Calling him “too intense and over-prepped,” Hanretty said the senator reminded her of “Slim Pickens, in the movie ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ You know, the character waving his hat over his head as he rides the H-bomb to world destruction.” 

If the mainstream media post-mortems tend toward caution about about picking debate winners and losers, the talk shows last week were hardly burdened by such reticence. That helped make last week’s big GOP debate—with 10 candidates sharing the spotlight—the biggest talk topic of the week. With about half the campaign-related segments connected to the debate itself, the 2008 race for the White House was the biggest subject, filling 28% of the talk airwaves from April 29 through May 4, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index. 

The campaign was also the biggest story in the general News Index (at 13%). But it got more than twice as much attention in the talk show menu (28%). That general pattern of talk hosts using their shows to significantly magnify two or three of the biggest news stories was again evident last week. The second biggest talk subject, the Iraq war policy debate, filled 20% of the talk airtime, in contrast to 12% of the newshole in the media overall. And while the controversy over former CIA director George Tenet’s new book, “At the Center of the Storm,” accounted for 5% of the general news coverage, it represented 13% of the talk show conversation last week. 

The other two top-five topics were stories that were also political. The immigration debate, the fourth biggest subject (at 6%), was dominated by CNN’s Lou Dobbs, a tireless advocate for tougher enforcement policies. On the week when there were May 1 immigrant-rights rallies across the country, “Lou Dobbs Tonight” aired 13 of the 21 talk segments that focused on the topic. 

Another story that managed to take on an ideological tinge was the “D.C. Madam” saga, the fifth biggest talk subject at 4%. This story, which threatened to expose a number of influential Beltway figures who had used an escort service, fizzled when ABC’s “20/20” decided not to name names in its much-anticipated May 4 report. But earlier in the week, the radio talkers had a field day. 

On his April 30 show, conservative Sean Hannity expressed his anger at ABC’s plans to pursue the scandal, suggesting it reflected media bias, not financial avarice. “Is this a big ratings grab?” he asked. “The media salivating over the prospect of the names of Bush administration officials [showing up] on a client list?  I wonder if there’s a few Clinton folks in there…once they show up, forget it. It won’t be a story anymore.”  

On the other side of the political spectrum, liberal radio talker Randi Rhodes seized on the fact that one Bush administration State Department official had resigned after being linked to the escort service. (He argued he was only getting massages.) So she aired a satirical bit that was designed to sound like an R-rated commercial for “Conserva-girls, the escort service just for Republicans.”

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.

Aside from the proclivity of talk hosts to put considerably more emphasis on the biggest news stories of the week, another area where the Talk Index and general News Index tend to diverge is the bottom of the top-10 story list. The kind of spot news or breaking events that often helps fill out the second half of the News Index are sometimes ignored by the talk shows.  

This past week, such significant news stories as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s meeting with the Syrian foreign minister, Queen Elizabeth II’s U.S. visit, Rupert Murdoch’s bid to buy Dow Jones, and the turmoil inside the Israeli government after the report on the 2006 war against Hezbollah all failed to make the list of top 10 talk topics. 

Instead, the bottom half of the top-10 talk topics included the health of Cuba’s ailing leader Fidel Castro (7th biggest topic at 1%), White House Press Secretary Tony Snow’s return to work after cancer treatment (eighth at 1%), and the U.S. conflict with Iran (tenth at 1%). 

While the talk universe is often known for its passionate ideological arguments between left and right, there are times—albeit rare—when both sides actually find themselves in agreement.   

Last week former CIA director Tenet—on a media tour to promote his new book—tried to distance himself from the decision to go to war in Iraq while claiming he was being made a scapegoat for the unpopular policy. 

That managed to anger conservatives who resented his criticism of the White House and were suspicious about his motives. “For him to be the guy that’s out there doing the second-guessing is as ridiculous and absurd a situation as you can imagine,” declared conservative radio host Mark Belling, subbing for Limbaugh on April 30.  “This guy was wrong all along.” 

It also managed to anger liberals who wonder why Tenet wasn’t raising doubts about the war when he was in a position of power in the administration. 

“How many are paying attention to the whore tour?” asked liberal radio host Ed Schultz on his May 1 show. “That’s we are now calling the George Tenet book tour…He sold his soul on a book tour.”  

It’s a rare public figure that can bring America’s fractious talk hosts to agreement, but as correspondent Kelli Arena noted in a report on Dobbs’s April 30 show: “George Tenet is finding out it’s not easy to rewrite your own legacy.”  

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 28%
2. Iraq Policy Debate – 20%
3. George Tenet Book – 13%
4. Immigration – 6%
5. DC Escort Scandal – 4%
6. Events in Iraq – 1%
7. Fidel Castro's Health – 1%
8. Tony Snow's Health – 1%
9. LA Police Actions at Immigration Rally – 1%
10. Iran – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 13%
2. Iraq Policy Debate – 12%
3. Events in Iraq – 7%
4. George Tenet Book – 5%
5. Immigration – 5%
6. Condoleeza Rice Trip – 4%
7. DC Escort Scandal – 2%
8. Queen Elizabeth Visits the US – 2%
9. Murdoch Bids for Dow Jones – 2%
10. Israel/Lebanon Conflict – 2%

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