January 15, 2007

The Debate over Iraq Policy Dominates the News

PEJ News Coverage Index Jan. 7 - 12, 2007

 

The debate over what to do next in Iraq thoroughly dominated the news landscape last week, according to the PEJ News Coverage Index.

In the second week of the new year (January 7-12) Iraq policy filled 34% of the overall newshole and was the top story in all five media sectors – newspapers, online, network TV, cable and radio. That was followed by events in Congress and Somalia, and two other Iraq-related stories, but none of these even reached double digits in the main Index.

In a week of deadly serious events, there was still a California-sized helping of celebrity journalism as well. The Malibu wildfires were the sixth-biggest story largely because one of the destroyed homes belonged to “Three’s Company” star and ThighMaster pitchwoman Suzanne Somers. That overshadowed an event that affected millions more Californians, the unveiling of Governor Schwarzenegger’s $12 billion health care plan, which finished in tenth place. (The health care story was even topped by news that fabulously famous British soccer star and Posh Spice husband David Beckham had accepted an Alex Rodriguez-like $250 million to play in Los Angeles. Beckham was the seventh biggest story, with cable paying the most attention.)

The PEJ’s News Coverage Index, released every Tuesday, is an ongoing study of the news agenda of a wide swath of the American press, measuring the topics covered in 48 different outlets from five sectors of the American media. (See a List of Outlets.) The Index is an attempt to provide an empirical look at what the media are and aren't covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. We believe it is the largest continuing study of the media agenda ever attempted. (See About the News Coverage Index.)

A week earlier, thanks to the January 4 swearing-in ceremonies, the Democratic takeover of Congress was the biggest overall story. But last week, as those Democrats got down to the business of governing and cast votes on the minimum wage and Medicare drug prices, Congress slipped to a distant second (at 7%).

The third biggest story, at 5%, was the dramatic U.S. military attack in Somalia. That story was fueled by reports—later debunked—that the air strikes had killed some of Al Qaeda’s most wanted.

The reason Iraq policy overwhelmed the news last week was the President’s January 10 speech committing about 22,000 more soldiers to the conflict. While the substance of his proposals were well known, the political fight that it promised dwarfed every other event in the news. When combined with two other Iraq related stories—events on the ground in Iraq (in fourth place at 4%) and stories about the homefront (fifth place at 2%)—coverage of the increasingly divisive Iraq war accounted for 40% of the media menu.

The Iraq policy debate was an even bigger story on network TV (43 %) and cable (41%), and received its biggest play on radio where it accounted for 46% of the coverage and was fanned by talk hosts on both sides of the political spectrum.

On her January 10 show, for instance, liberal talker Randi Rhodes aired a movie-teaser bit in which a gravelly voiced announcer declared: “Tonight, don’t miss the most anticipated blockbuster of the year. It’s George W. Bush in ‘surge,’ – the escalation…From the same people who brought you ‘stay the course.”’

Conservative talker Rush Limbaugh on the same day angrily accused some media of actively trying to “purge the surge.” He characterized Democrats as the party with a “blame America attitude,” adding that “this is not how you defeat any military enemy, by the way, [by] exiting and retreating.” Bill O’Reilly that day was taking the same line as Limbaugh, predicting that the media would blast the president no matter what.

One element in Bush’s speech seemed to catch the media by particular surprise, a reference to more aggressive military action against Iran and Syria, raising the specter of a wider war.

NBC’s Brian Williams led his January 11 newscast by declaring that “much of the talk today was about fears of a new front in Iran.”

Those fears were fanned by the news, that broke hours after Bush’s address, of a U.S. raid in Northern Iraq that led to the detention of five Iranians. The next day, the buzz over Iran was loud enough that Tony Snow opened his White House press briefing by dismissing the idea of the U.S. preparations for war with Iran as “urban legend.”

While Iraq news led each media sector last week, there were some different priorities in the top story rosters. The Internet, which delivered a wider variety of international news, devoted the most coverage to the U.S. strikes in Somalia (11%) and was the only media sector to include the Ethiopian attack on Somalia Islamists in its top five list, at 5%. This is the second week the web proved the most broadly international medium.

The California health care proposal and the debate over immigration policy cracked the top five only in the newspaper sector.

Cable was the only sector to turn David Beckham’s impending U.S. arrival into a top five story, although the New York Times saw fit to play it above the fold on page 1 on January 12. And coverage of the stem cell issue—driven by reports that stem cells had been found in amniotic fluid and by the House vote to lift restrictions on research—earned a top five spot only in radio.

Two attention-grabbing events that streaked across the media landscape last week failed to generate “legs” and eventually fell off the overall top 10 story list—the odor in New York and the new iPhone. Even a Cisco lawsuit alleging trademark infringement failed to keep Apple’s eagerly anticipated January 9 unveiling of the iPhone atop the mainstream news agenda.

And cable watchers may have experienced some 9/11 déjà vu on January 8 when the Manhattan skyline appeared above headlines reporting a mysterious and powerful odor. Such images instinctively conjure up at least momentary fears of that infamous September morning. But by the next day, people were blaming New Jersey, rather than Al Qaeda, for the stench. (The tiresome Donald Trump/Rosie O’Donnell feud, which has now lasted more rounds than the Frazier/Ali trilogy, barely registered at less than 1% of the overall coverage.)

One breaking news event reported on January 12 quickly rose to make cable’s top 10 roster, and seems destined to become a bigger story this week. The heartening but still baffling tale of two disappeared Missouri teens—including one missing for four years—found safely in the same home has all the earmarks of a story just beginning to be unfold.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: Due to the President's speech on Wednesday, January 10, some cable programming that evening was preempted.