It was Lou Dobbs’s victory lap. On June 29, a day after the Senate applied what appeared to be the coup de grace to the immigration bill, its most vocal media opponent read some congratulatory emails on his CNN show.
“Thanks Lou, for presenting the views of legal American citizens,” wrote “Joan from Virginia.”
“We love you Lou. Your hard work paid off. Thank you. Thank you,” enthused “Fred from Florida.”
“Thank you Lou Dobbs for leading the charge against this immigration bill,” added “E. from Washington.”
In the weeks between the May 17 introduction of the Senate immigration legislation and its June 28 demise, many hosts—including conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and Sean Hannity—mounted an aggressive campaign against the bill. But over the long haul, no one devoted more energy to derailing what he called the “amnesty” measure than Dobbs, the veteran CNN personality who has transformed himself from a pinstriped chronicler of the corporate boardroom to a full-blown populist, though he still has the suits. (Critics might use other words to describe him.)
In the last three months, from April 1-June 29, Dobbs devoted more than a quarter (26%) of the airtime on his nightly show to immigration. (That’s almost twice as much attention as he gave to the next leading subject, the Iraq war policy debate.) Last week, the immigration debate was the most popular cable and radio talk topic, filling 24% of the airtime, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index from June 24-29. And nearly half the week’s talk stories on immigration originated from Dobbs’s program, including the segment in which he basked in the citizen kudos.
While immigration dominated the talk menu, the failed London car bomb plot—which occurred on the last day of the week examined in this Index—was the second-biggest topic (12%). It was a much bigger subject on cable than radio. The controversy over Vice President Dick Cheney’s secretive and unprecedented influence over policy in the White House, explored in a Washington Post series, was next at 9%. For liberal critics of the Vice President such as radio’s Randi Rhodes and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, the Post’s articles were irresistible ammunition.
With last week largely devoid of major campaign news, the 2008 White House race was the sixth-biggest talk subject (filling 6% of the time, plummeting from 25% the previous week). You have to go back to April 15-20, when the horrific Virginia Tech shooting spree consumed 63% of the talk newshole, to find a week when the campaign got less attention on the talk shows.
The talk universe topic list continues to be somewhat different than the agenda seen in PEJ’s more general News Coverage Index each week. Four subjects that made talk’s top-10 story list failed to register that high in the general news Index. The grisly family murder/suicide apparently perpetrated by professional wrestler Chris Benoit was the fourth-biggest topic at 7% in talk. Socialite Paris Hilton’s release from jail was the tenth-biggest subject at 3%. The other two subjects that generated more talk attention than general coverage involved the media directly. One was the exchange of words between Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, and conservative commentator Ann Coulter over civility in politics (seventh at 6%). The other was an argument over ideology on the talk airwaves (eighth at 4%).
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.
Paris Hilton’s return from incarceration and the Benoit tragedy were two very different crime stories that intrigued some talk hosts last week. The Benoit case—in which police say he killed his wife and seven-year-old son before hanging himself—may end up opening a window on the issue of steroids in the physically demanding world of pro wrestling.
On the June 28 edition of MSNBC’s “Scarborough Country,”—the program that devoted by far the most attention to the issue—guest host Dan Abrams discussed the subject with pro grapplers “Johnny B. Badd” and “the Lethal Weapon.”
As the screen displayed the statistic that pro wrestlers have death rates seven times higher than the general population, Abrams said “we’ve had former wrestlers on this program…and every one of them talks about funerals and the fact that a disproportionate number of wrestlers have died. There’s got to be some explanation for why so many wrestlers are having so many problems.”
Most of the talk of Hilton’s June 26 release from jail—following her assertion that she found God and is a changed person—came on the Fox News Channel’s “O’Reilly Factor” and “Hannity & Colmes.” (The “celebutante’s” June 27 interview with CNN’s Larry King also tripled King’s normal audience.)
The Elizabeth Edwards/Ann Coulter face-off was a media-generated flare-up that started when Edwards called into the June 26 edition of MSNBC’s “Hardball” to confront Coulter and ask her “to stop the personal attacks” on her husband, John Edwards, and others. Coulter responded with: “OK, great the wife of a presidential candidate is calling in asking me to stop speaking.”
The next night, the battle continued when John Edwards appeared on “Hardball” to declare that “when people like Ann Coulter…engage in this kind of hate mongering, you have to stand up to them.”
Coulter got a hearing on the June 28 “O’Reilly Factor” where she said she was undaunted by the Elizabeth Edwards call. “I’m more of a man than any liberal is,” she declared, “so…I don’t care.”
(For those of you with a more skeptical bent, it was pointed out on both “Hardball” and “The O’Reilly Factor” that Coulter has used the confrontation to sell more of her books and John Edwards has turned the dustup into a fundraising tool.)
Another media-related issue that is generating momentum on talk radio centers around political balance on the airwaves. And it was ignited, in part, by a recent report concluding that conservative hosts overwhelmingly dominate the radio microphones. That has quickly developed into its own ideological argument with some conservatives warning of a return to the Fairness Doctrine, a regulation repealed 20 years ago that required broadcasters to air balancing points of view on controversial public policy issues.
On his June 27 show, Limbaugh referred to his program as one “that frightens and scares the American left to the point that they want to deny this program Constitutional access to the First Amendment.”
A day later, Ed Schultz, one of a much smaller group of successful liberal hosts, said “I can guarantee you folks that no one is out there saying ‘let’s have the Fairness Doctrine.’” And he blamed conservatives for trying to silence liberal voices.
“How come I’m still on the air?” Schultz added. “They don’t want us here.”
Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ
Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index1. Immigration – 24% 2. UK Terror – 12%
3. VP Cheney Controversies – 9% 4. Wrestler Crime – 7% 5. Ohio Woman – 6% 6. Campaign 2008 – 6%
7. Ann Coulter's Comments – 6%
8. Fairness Doctrine – 4% 9. Iraq Policy Debate – 3% 10. Paris Hilton – 3%
Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index1. Immigration – 12% 2. Campaign 2008 – 6% 3. Supreme Court Actions – 6%
4. UK Terror – 5% 5. VP Cheney Controversies – 5% 6. Lake Tahoe Fire – 5% 7. Events in Iraq – 4% 8. Iraq Policy Debate – 4% 9. Ohio Woman – 3% 10. Texas/Plains Flooding – 3%
Click here to read the methodology behind the Talk Show Index.