The ink had barely dried on the May 17 White House and Senate agreement on a major immigration bill when the talk show universe responded with a roar of disapproval.

CNN’s Lou Dobbs, an advocate of tougher immigration enforcement, criticized the “apparent mindlessness associated with this compromise” and attacked the legislative process.

“People have to be aghast that U.S. Senators would not even read the legislation that they are moving forward to a vote,” he declared.

On his MSNBC show, conservative Joe Scarborough seemed equally unhappy with the measure.

“The America you once knew may soon change forever,” he warned his viewers. The bill “sounds nice,” he added. “But it is amnesty.”

On talk radio, conservative critics such as Sean Hannity and Michael Savage were even less restrained.

Hannity paraphrased former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s thoughts on the matter, arguing that “you cannot begin your career or your life as an American by first breaking the law…The American people have had it with this, had it with lawbreakers.”

Savage, his voice rising in anger, charged: “We don’t want to negotiate away America…We’re not giving away the sovereignty of America. This is the Alamo right now!”

Overall, the immigration debate was the second most popular topic for the week of May13–18, filling 19% of the airtime on the cable and radio talk shows according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index. And the hosts’ response was a clear illustration of the talkers’ unique role in the news landscape.

Not only did the talk hosts who weighed in on the subject vigorously exercise their right to opine—rather than report—on the news. But virtually the only voices raised were those of the harsh critics of a bill that lawmakers praised as the height of compromise, something with elements objectionable to those on the left and right.

The talk show hosts, however, are under no obligation to reflect broader public opinion. A May 25 New York Times story reported on a new poll indicating that a majority of Americans supported key provisions in the immigration measure.

As is often the case in the talk culture, the cable and radio hosts chose several leading news stories of the week and magnified them. The immigration debate that filled 19% of the talk airtime accounted for roughly half that, 9%, of the coverage in the general News Index. The leading talk topic from May 13–18, the 2008 Presidential race, filled 24% of the talk newshole while it accounted for 10% of the general news coverage that week.

After the presidential race and the immigration debate, the other major talk subjects were the Iraq policy debate (third at 7%) and the death of Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell (fifth at 4%). Two related stories finished fourth and sixth, respectively, on the talk list. One (at 4%) was former Deputy Attorney General James Comey’s dramatic Congressional testimony about Alberto Gonzales’s sickbed visit to then Attorney General John Ashcroft to get him to recertify the administration’s warrantless wiretap program. The other (at 3%) was the continuing fallout over the investigation into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

Put them both together and they account for 7% of the talk air time and may add up to more potential trouble for the embattled Gonzales.

The Talk Show Index, released each week, 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 leading talk story of the week, the 2008 race for the White House, was overwhelmingly a cable talk phenomenon (about 123 minutes) rather than a hot talk radio subject (about 28 minutes). And while Republican candidates dominated the conversation by about a 3-1 margin over Democrats, thanks in large measure to the May 15 GOP debate, the sense that the field may not yet be settled seems to hover over the discussion.

During a debate-post mortem on his May 16 MSNBC show, Tucker Carlson wondered whether Republicans are “still waiting, desperately hoping for some fresh blood in the form, say, of Fred Thompson, Newt Gingrich, maybe even New York City Mayor and multi-billionaire Michael Bloomberg.”

In a sure sign of his qualms with the field, Michael Savage informed listeners on May 15 that more than 11 million people have visited his web site and encouraged him to run for President in 2008.

In the talk host’s words, the message from the public was: “Savage, leave radio in a year and run against the phonies.”

The death of Jerry Falwell, who was both a powerful and polarizing figure in religion and politics, might have seemed tailor-made for the talk culture. But only a handful of hosts talked about him, and there did not appear to be much appetite to use his death to re-ignite the culture wars.

The Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly gave it something of a try on his May 16 show, when he attacked “the far left” and the media for critical comments made about Falwell after his death.

“Within hours of his demise, the far-left hate machine cranked up,” said O’Reilly. “There’s such a thing as decency.”

At the same time, O’Reilly acknowledged that “Jerry Falwell was, at times, intolerant himself…I disagreed with him on many issues.” That kind of ambivalence may have prevented Falwell from being a bigger talk subject. He didn’t lend himself to a simple perspective.

One subject that attracted primarily liberal hosts such as MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and radio talkers Ed Schultz and Randi Rhodes was the continuing controversy over Attorney General Alberto Gonzales Two stories—the investigation into the fired U.S. Attorneys and James Comey’s testimony—were directly connected to the Justice Department and Gonzales’s future there.

On his May 15 show, Schultz could barely contain his glee as he talked about the turmoil at the department and the departure of some top-ranking Justice officials (although not yet Gonzales).

“I’m not sure if we’re getting justice or not,” he told his listeners. “But we’re attempting to over at the department—as they continue to drop like flies.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 24%
2. Immigration – 19%
3. Iraq Policy Debate – 7%
4. James Comey Testimony – 4%
5. Jerry Falwell's Death – 4%
6. Fired US Attorneys – 3%
7. Events in Iraq – 2%
8. General White House Scandals – 1%
9. Iraq Homefront – 1%
10. Israeli/Palestinian Conflict – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Events in Iraq – 10%
2. 2008 Campaign – 10%
3. Immigration – 9%
4. Jerry Falwell's Death – 6%
5. Iraq Policy Debate – 5%
6. Paul Wolfowitz Scandal – 4%
7. Chrysler Sold – 3%
8. James Comey Testimony – 3%
9. Israeli/Palestinian Conflict – 2%
10. Gas/Oil Prices – 2%

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