Some conservative talk hosts—who one week earlier were celebrating the apparent defeat of the immigration bill—found themselves in an unusual position last week. They were up against key figures in the GOP—including President Bush—who helped resurrect the measure on June 14.

On his June 15 radio program, Sean Hannity drew firm distinctions between conservatives and Republicans.

“We stand up for our principles regardless of any party affiliation,” he said. “We find ourselves now at odds with Republicans for one reason and one reason only…They keep compromising their values.”

One reason for the passion was that Senate Republican whip Trent Lott of Mississippi made talk radio part of the issue, blaming the talk culture in part for derailing the bill. “Talk radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem,” Lott had said.

That made Lott a target. “What are we gonna do about Mississippi Senator Trent Lott…one of the engineers of the Senate immigration bill, the amnesty bill,” Rush Limbaugh asked his listeners June 15.

“Senator Lott’s out there saying the problem with this is talk radio,” he continued. “Now what does that mean?”

That intra-party anger and the passion over the reborn Senate bill is one reason why immigration was the biggest talk topic last week, filling 17% of all the airtime on cable and radio talk shows, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index from June 10-15.

That marked only the second time all year that immigration was the leading talk subject. An organized and energized talk culture has been on DEFCON 1 ever since the May 17 announcement of the so-called compromise immigration bill. And thus, this marked the fifth week in a row that immigration was a top five talk topic.

The 2008 presidential race, which had recently been the most dominant talk subject (and the top story in five of the past eight weeks), was a close second last week, filling 15% of the airtime in the Index.That was followed by the Iraq policy debate (8%), and the continuing investigation into the fired U.S. attorneys (5%), which last week included Congressional subpoenas for former White House staffers Harriet Miers and Sara Taylor. The fifth-leading topic (4%) was the situation inside Iraq where the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra for the second time threatened to further inflame sectarian violence.

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.

Although immigration was the lead story on both the talk shows and in PEJ’s more general News Coverage Index (at 10%) as well last week, there were bigger differences elsewhere.The second-leading story last week in the news Index overall (at 9%) was the intra-Palestinian feuding that left Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip and Fatah in control of the West Bank. It was a much smaller story in the talk universe, only the eighth-biggest topic at 3%. (The only radio host to tackle the subject was Michael Savage.)

When it came to percentage of newshole, there was not much difference in coverage of the controversial June 10 conclusion to HBO’s “The Sopranos.” (2% of the News Coverage Index, 3% of the Talk Show Index). The arguments over the final restaurant scene did not make it one of the top-10 general news stories, but it did finish as the seventh-most popular talk show subject.

That was in part thanks to liberal radio host Randi Rhodes’ lengthy discussion of the pros and cons of the ambiguous ending on her June 11 program. The same night, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews mulled over the socio-political ramifications of the famous final scene with NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd and Linda Douglass of the National Journal.

“That family having dinner at that restaurant, eating onion rings together, the kid who’s a pain in the butt, the daughter that can’t parallel park,” observed Matthews. “It’s so American.”

Just ahead of the Sopranos as a talk topic was the increasing hostility between the U.S. and Iran (sixth-biggest story at 3%). Much of the speculation there focused on Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman’s comments on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the U.S. has “got to be prepared to take aggressive military action against the Iranians to stop them from killing Americans in Iraq.”

The connection between the situation in Iran and events in Iraq was made clear on the June 13 edition of the Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes” show when the guest, NBC’s Tim Russert, was asked to comment about Lieberman’s words of warning about Iraq. Russert said he had run the idea of military action against Iran past people in the Pentagon and they had two reactions. One “concern was, ‘do we know the right targets?’” and a second more ominous one was “if we did that and Iran suddenly decided they were going to send a couple of hundred thousand troops into Iraq, what happens to our folks in Iraq?”

Russert was a busy cable talk guest. He also appeared last week on Tucker Carlson’s June 15 MSNBC program to offer a perspective on the immigration debate, but he eschewed the fiery moral passion of many hosts for the cold political calculus. Appearing to be anti-immigration or anti-Hispanic, he suggested, might not be in the best interests of the White House and Republicans.

“If you look at the demographics, the Republicans need Hispanic voters in order to maintain majority status,” he said. And he added that White House advisors may well be thinking that “if we have Hispanics and blacks voting ten-to-one Democratic, we’re in trouble.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ


Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Immigration – 17%
2. 2008 Campaign – 15%
3. Iraq Policy Debate – 8%
4. Fired US Attorneys – 5%
5. Events in Iraq – 4%
6. Iran – 3%
7. Sopranos – 3%
8. Palestinian Conflict – 3%
9. US Domestic Terrorism – 2%
10. Libby Sentence – 2%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Immigration – 10%
2. Palestinian Conflict – 9%
3. Events in Iraq – 7%
4. 2008 Campaign – 7%
5. Fired US Attorneys – 3%
6. Iraq Policy Debate – 3%
7. US Domestic Terrorism – 2%
8. Space Station – 2%
9. Iran – 2%
10. Libby Sentence – 2%

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