A look at last week’s coverage of the Iraq conflict makes a pretty compelling case that the talk show universe moves to its own beat.

In the media generally, the expanding investigation into Blackwater USA—the private security firm accused by the Iraqi government of deliberately killing 17 civilians in a Sept. 16 Baghdad incident—was a dominant development last week. So much so, the situation inside Iraq, made up largely of the Blackwater case, was the second-leading story, accounting for 13% of the newshole as measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index.

But the cable and radio talk hosts—who employ their own criteria for newsworthiness—had a different set of Iraq priorities from the rest of the media last week. The Blackwater investigation wasn’t deemed very interesting, particularly by conservative talk radio hosts—such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity—who left the subject alone. The Fox News Channel also chose to take a pass. According to PEJ’s Talk Show Index from Sept. 30-Oct. 5, events inside Iraq accounted for only 7% of the cable and radio talk air time.

Instead, the talk hosts were fascinated by the Iraq policy debate, especially by one aspect of the debate that struck close to home. For the second week in a row, talkers on the left and right were abuzz over Limbaugh’s reference to “phony soldiers” on Sept. 26. (Limbaugh insists he was referring to one discredited former soldier who had lied about Iraq atrocities. His foes claim he was attacking any Iraq veteran who voiced opposition to the war.)

With the Limbaugh controversy driving most of the war debate discussion, Iraq policy filled 25% of the talk airwaves, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index. That made it the second-biggest talk topic, behind the 2008 Presidential campaign (30%). Events inside Iraq (7%), the status of Idaho Senator Larry Craig (3%) and health care (2%) rounded out the top five talk stories. Just for good measure, the fallout from the Feb. 8 death of starlet Anna Nicole Smith reappeared on the top-10 talk roster last week, finishing No. 8 at 1%.

By contrast, the Iraq policy debate filled only 6% of the media newshole overall, and even less if the talkers were removed.

PEJ’s 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 furor over “phony soldiers” erupted, in part, because of the broader political context. Congress had just passed resolutions condemning the liberal group MoveOn.org’s advertisement that characterized General David Petraeus as “General Betray Us.” Angry and chagrined, Democrats quickly jumped on Limbaugh’s “phony soldiers” line as an attack on the patriotism of troops who dared speak against the war.

As the tiff moved into its second week, Limbaugh continued to defend himself by attacking his attackers.

“I’m wondering if the Democrats might be feeling as if they had opened a Pandora’s Box…Who actually is attacking the military? They are,” he said on his Oct. 4 show. And referring to one Democratic Senator’s professed desire to censure him, Limbaugh responded: “You have no power to censure me or any other private citizen…I will censure you for repeating lies about a private citizen.”

The criticism however, wasn’t just coming from Democrats in Congress. Liberal talk show hosts were making hay as well. A few nights earlier, MSNBC’s liberal Keith Olbermann continued his assault on Limbaugh by airing an ad that features a wounded Iraq veteran saying, “Rush Limbaugh called vets like me ‘phony soliders’ for telling the truth about Iraq…Stop telling lies about my service.”

Olbermann then assailed “Limbaugh’s unceasing tone-deafness about this country and its people.”

The Limbaugh contretemps were, in many ways, a proxy fight over Iraq policy with talk hosts on both sides of the war debate weighing in. The fact that it became personal and self-referential seemed to help inflate its value as a talk topic. The fact that it was going on for a second week is just one continuing feature of the talk culture. It is remarkably self referential.

The Talkers and the Campaign

The presidential campaign, always a hot talk topic, brought some good tidings to Hillary Clinton last week. Her fundraising skill (her campaign collected $27 million in the last quarter, outraising Barack Obama) and her widening lead in the polls (a new Washington Post/ABC News survey had her ahead of Obama by 33 points) sparked more conversation about her prospects for victory in 2008.

“Hillary Clinton is the favorite to become President of the United States. Do you believe that will happen?” Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly asked analyst Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

While stressing that “there is nothing inevitable in politics,” Sabato responded that “if you had to pick somebody to win today, you’d pick her.”

A significant piece of the GOP presidential story last week was the news that some religious conservatives were talking about backing a third party candidate if the party nominated the more socially liberal Rudy Giuliani. Asked about that on Tucker Carlson’s MSNBC show last week, former White House deputy director of Faith-Based Initiatives David Kuo warned that social conservatives who were counting on Giuliani to appoint conservative judges were “taking a huge gamble. I don’t know that…you’re gonna trust somebody who says, ‘listen I’m pro gay marriage, I’m pro abortion rights, but it’s okay. I’m gonna appoint justices who rule against those things.’”

Anna Redux

Finally, some of the old cast of characters from the Anna Nicole Smith saga got back into the news last week. And the topic was sheer tabloid. O’Reilly devoted part of his Oct. 3 show to Smith attorney Howard K. Stern’s $60 million lawsuit against a book that reports, among other things, that he and Larry Birkhead—the ex-Smith boyfriend—had sex.

When it comes to the Anna Nicole Smith fiasco, it’s hard to find a protagonist.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 30%
2. Iraq Policy Debate – 25%
3. Events in Iraq – 7%
4. Larry Craig Scandal – 3%
5. Health Care – 2%
6. U.S. Domestic Terrorism – 2%
7. Immigration – 1%
8. Anna Nicole Smith – 1%
9. Bill O'Reilly's Comments – 1%
10. Nevada Sex Abuse Video – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 14%
2. Events in Iraq – 13%
3. Iraq Policy Debate – 6%
4. Immigration – 3%
5. U.S. Domestic – 3%
6. Marion Jones/Steroids – 3%
7. Larry Craig Scandal – 2%
8. U.S. Economy – 2%
9. North Korea – 2%
10. Myanmar Protests – 2%

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