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Did Talk Hosts Help Derail the Immigration Bill?

PEJ Talk Show Index June 3 – 8, 2007

On June 8—the day after the immigration bill suffered a major defeat when its backers failed to get a Senate vote—there was barely disguised gloating on the part of some talk hosts.

CNN’s Lou Dobbs, a staunch opponent of the bill who has spent more time on immigration than any other host, opened his program by announcing “a crushing defeat for the pro-illegal alien lobby in its efforts to ram amnesty through the U.S. Senate in defiance of the will of the American people.”

Substituting for Rush Limbaugh, conservative radio talker Roger Hedgecock told his listeners that this was a case of “everyone on the talk show circuit…talking about this issue in a way that has educated a larger percentage of Americans to what’s really at stake than the Senate is used to.”

On the same day, radio host Michael Savage, another fierce opponent of the measure, responded to the criticism that extremist hosts had conspired to defeat the bill by quoting conservative icon Barry Goldwater.

“As a great American once said, ‘extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.’”

Last week, as the compromise immigration bill collapsed, the issue was the second most popular topic among radio and cable talk shows. According to PEJ’s Talk Show Index for June 3-8, the immigration debate filled 19% of the total talk airtime. Although supporters hope that an amended version of the measure will make it back to the Senate floor, many media accounts credited a sustained and aggressive talk show attack as a factor in the outcome.

The most popular talk topic last week, at 26%, was the 2008 Presidential race, a story driven in part by CNN-hosted debates for both the Democratic and Republican candidates. (The campaign and the immigration battle were also the two top stories, at 15% and 9% respectively, in the week’s general News Index.)

Two jail tales filled the third and fourth spots on the talk roster. The 30-month sentence handed to former vice-presidential aide “Scooter” Libby for his role in the Valerie Plame case consumed 9% of the talk airtime. And party girl Paris Hilton’s brief release and quick return to jail to serve her sentence for violating probation was the fourth leading story, also at 9%.

The debate over Iraq policy—a subject that has cooled somewhat since the May 24 Congressional vote funding the war without withdrawal timetables—was the fifth biggest subject at 4%. That vote was widely seen as a victory for President Bush after a five-month battle with Congress over war strategy.

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 best way to get a sense of how the immigration debate galvanized some talk hosts is to return back to the week of the May 17, when the Senate compromise endorsed by the White House was announced.

In the period from May 13 through June 8, the immigration debate was the second-most popular talk topic (18%), narrowly trailing the presidential race (21%) and doubling the time spent on the next biggest subject, the Iraq policy debate (9%).

But while the amount of time devoted to the subject is telling, equally revealing is the question of who talked about it. In that 26-day period, the airwaves were dominated by vocal hosts opposed to the legislation who often referred to it with the politically damning term “amnesty bill.”

On his nightly CNN show, Dobbs aired more than 40% of all the May 13-June 8 talk show segments that primarily dealt with immigration, according to the Index. Conservatives Sean Hannity (on his syndicated radio show and his Fox News Channel program) and Limbaugh each initiated about 15% of all the immigration segments in that period. Another fierce critic who frequently spoke out was Savage, who described the measure as threatening “the sovereignty of America” and compared the opponents to defenders of the Alamo.

While the immigration compromise had critics on both the left and right, it generally had more support among Democrats than Republicans. Yet, there was hardly a peep from the liberal talk hosts including MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and talk radio’s Randi Rhodes and Ed Schultz. (When he did weigh in on June 8, Schultz expressed satisfaction that the bill failed.)

Given the intensity of the battle waged by the talk show critics, it’s not surprising that the media analysis—whether positive or negative—cited their role in the outcome.

A CNN story on the immigration issue began with the sound of a Limbaugh attack on the bill blaring through a car radio. A June 10 front-page New York Times article on grassroots opposition said the measure “sparked a furious rebellion among many Republican and even some Democratic voters, who were linked by the Internet and encouraged by radio talk shows.” And a June 7 dispatch from Reuters noted the bitter opposition from “very vocal groups ranging from civilian border patrol activists to talk show radio hosts shouting down the plan on syndicated shows.”

“Amnesty’s defeat is the big deal,” declared Savage on June 8. “When this story is finally written, it’s the victory of the people.” It may also represent the clearest case this year of an energized talk show culture having an impact on public policy.

A more traditional role for the talk hosts—arguing an issue from opposing ideological poles—was at play in the “Scooter” Libby sentencing. Libby was convicted of obstruction and perjury in a case that revolved around the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, but was more broadly seen as a window into the Bush administration’s strategy in the run-up to the Iraq war.

On his June 5 radio program, an angry Hannity said the sentence given to Vice President Cheney’s key aide was “an outrage…the fact that he is going to jail on such a bogus case…it annoys me to no end that the often Republicans refuse to fight fire with fire.”

On the same day, Rhodes was clearly heartened by Libby’s fate, telling her listeners that his sentence of “30 months is about a minute and a half for every lie he told. I love that.”

The strange saga of Paris Hilton—which included live cable coverage of the handcuffed heiress being taken back to court in a sheriff’s vehicle—was the fourth biggest talk topic at 9%. That’s a lot of attention to a tabloid celebrity saga, but not as much as the 15% of the talk airtime consumed by the death of Anna Nicole Smith in early February.

Some of the hosts turned their fire on the media for giving too much attention to what they considered a frivolous story. A more tongue-in-cheek approach was taken by MSNBC’s Olbermann who staged something called “Countdown Puppet Theater: Paris in the Courtroom” on his June 8 show. That brief segment included crude puppet-like caricatures of a sobbing Hilton appearing before the judge who summarily sent her back to prison.

In what was mostly a sarcastic effort to discuss the broader implications of the Hilton case with the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, Olbermann’s last question may have come closest to the truth.

“This is our guilty pleasure, isn’t it, covering this story?”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ


Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 26%
2. Immigration – 19%
3. Libby Sentence – 9%
4. Paris Hilton – 9%
5. Iraq Policy Debate – 4%
6. Terrorist Plot Against JFK Airport – 3%
7. Congressional Corruption – 2%
8. Events in Iraq – 2%
9. War on Terror General – 2%
10. US/Russia Relations – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 15%
2. Immigration – 9%
3. US/Russia Relations – 7%
4. Libby Setence – 5%
5. Paris Hilton – 4%
6. Events in Iraq – 4%
7. Congressional Corruption – 3%
8. US Domestic Terrorism – 3%
9. G-8 Summit – 3%
10. Terrorist Plot Against JFK Airport – 3%

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

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