Charlotte radio talk show host takes some credit for immigration bill's demise

CHARLOTTE -- When the immigration bill met its demise Thursday in the U.S. Senate, Jeff Katz felt confident taking a bit of credit from his radio booth.

After all, the Charlotte conservative talk show host had worked relentlessly to kill it.

He talked about it incessantly, posted the 418-page bill on WBT-AM's Web site and helped listeners voice their opinions directly by giving out the Senate switchboard phone number.

A favorite target was someone whose vote made a difference, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who had hoped to work out a compromise but on Thursday voted to end debate on the controversial bill.

"Burr has been on both sides," Katz said in an interview. "He voted for it before he voted against it -- that seems to be a direct result of our efforts. He got slammed on it."

Burr said there are a lot of people taking credit for his vote, but "at the end of the day the problem was the product."

Still, he acknowledged that talk radio helped shape the public debate.

Burr said he typically finds talk radio educational but didn't think it worked out that way on the immigration bill.

"Amnesty was the one thing they focused on," Burr said, referring to the term some conservatives and talk-radio hosts used to describe allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the country.

"There was very little attempt to highlight a lot of good things that were in the bill. I think the intent was to kill the bill vs. to perfect the bill."

The issue so dominated the airwaves nationwide that Rep. Trent Lott, R-Miss., cried out a couple of weeks ago, "Talk radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem."

For that, he was punished. Typically allies of Lott, the conservative show hosts persuaded their loyalists to bombard him with negative feedback.

"Those in the Senate that are blaming talk radio for the demise of the immigration bill need to look within for the failure," said Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., of Cherryville.

Katz said the issue represented an unusual turnabout -- conservative talk show hosts attacking Republicans.

"It took a number of Republican politicians by surprise because they thought they owned these people, had them in their pockets, and they didn't," said Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers magazine, a trade journal based in Springfield, Mass., that focuses on the industry.

Ferrel Guillory, director of the public life program at UNC-Chapel Hill, said talk radio programs are powerful at rallying an already committed audience.

Guillory noted that media influence wasn't limited to radio. Broadcaster Lou Dobbs of CNN positioned himself as a populist voice to secure U.S. borders and limit immigration's economic damage, he said.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., of Banner Elk, said she thinks the media was actually late to catch up to a groundswell of opposition to illegal immigration.

"This was a huge issue before it ever became a topic on talk radio," Foxx said.

, whose district includes most of Iredell County.

Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., Charlotte, agreed that people would have been galvanized anyway, saying she's never seen such anger on any other issue.