March 26, 2007

The Scent of Scandal Makes Gonzales the Big Story

PEJ News Coverage Index March 18 - 23, 2007

After a news report on embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, National Public Radio’s March 23 “Morning Edition” program raised a crucial question about Washington’s scandal du jour.

“The controversy over the firings of the U.S. attorneys has consumed official Washington,” said host Renee Montagne. “But what is the public reaction to this story?”

“Really kind of minimal,” responded NPR’s political editor Ken Rudin. “If you look at polls, not many people are paying attention to it, but those who are are really outraged…”

The people paying the most attention are journalists, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index. The fallout over the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys was not only the biggest story last week, March 18-23, it really amounts at this point to a mega story. Filling 18% of the overall newshole, it was the second-biggest story of the year. The only one to receive more coverage was the debate over the Iraq war, which filled 34% of the newshole the week in January when President Bush announced his troop “surge” plan.

Already the level of coverage of the U.S. attorneys flap has substantially exceeded that of two other major Washington scandals—the Scooter Libby trial and conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital.

It also was a big story across the media spectrum last week, the top subject in four of the five media sectors—newspapers, network TV, cable TV, and radio. And the subject attracted considerably more attention than other major stories last week, including the Iraq policy debate (second at 12%), the violence inside Iraq (third at 9%), the 2008 presidential race (fourth at 7%), and the Iraq war at home (fifth at 4%).

Yet, as NPR noted, the story has thus far exposed something of a disconnect between news producer and news consumer. While journalists appear fascinated by this battle between Congress and the White House, the public has yet to evince great enthusiasm for it.

According to a News Interest Index survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, only 8% of the public said the U.S. attorneys story was the one they followed most closely in the week of March 12. (That week it led all news coverage at 16%.) And preliminary results from last week indicate that citizen interest in the subject is up only marginally, despite the even higher level of media coverage.

For journalists and Washington-watchers, there was plenty of drama in the Justice Department scandal last week. Gonzales battled to keep his job, Bush voiced support for him, and Congress authorized subpoenas to try and force the public testimony of former White House counsel Harriet Miers and top aide Karl Rove. Stories spoke of a Constitutional showdown between the legislative and executive branches—a term loaded with historical resonance.

Liberal MSNBC “Countdown” host Keith Olbermann opened his March 22 show by declaring there is “nothing more dangerous to a presidency perhaps than a scandal evoking Watergate and executive privilege and attorneys general in trouble.” In case anyone missed the point, Olbermann’s interview subject that night was none other than Richard Nixon White House Counsel John Dean, now a Bush critic.

Maybe, if the public ever comes to view what Olbermann calls “Gonzales-gate” as sharing some kind of parallel to Watergate, interest may well rise. But many people may instead share the view of CNN’s Lou Dobbs who, in a commentary posted on CNN.com, put a pox on everybody’s house.

“And this is what passes for a big-time, dramatic, historical constitutional crisis in 21st century America?” Dobbs wrote. “You’ve got to be kidding…The White House is behaving with utter contempt for Congress and Congress is acting without respect or regard for this president. Could it be that, at long last, they’re both right?”

PEJ’s News Coverage Index is a study of the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. (See a List of Outlets.) It is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. (See Our Methodology.)

Most journalists themselves were not quick to pick up on the ramifications of the eight U.S. attorney firings across the country. The story did a slow simmer for several weeks, before finally catching fire in March. It first registered as a story in the News Coverage Index for March 4-9, when it accounted for 2% of the newshole. The following week it jumped to 16%.

Not only did the story dominate coverage in newspapers (13%), on network TV (20%), on cable (21%) and radio (25%) last week, it was a strong second online (at 16%), behind only the violence in Iraq.

Indeed, the story generated more front-page newspaper coverage last week than any subject since the Presidential race back in late January. At the same time, it has also proved irresistible fodder for the cable and radio talkshows. It was the top topic, filling 21% of the airtime in PEJ’s March 11-16 Talk Show Index, and consumed even more of the talk menu (29%) last week.

Compare this coverage to the Scooter Libby trial or the issue of the medical care of wounded war veterans. The Libby trial—with deep connections to Vice-President Dick Cheney—usually filled about 3% to 4% of the weekly newshole before peaking as the #1 story (13%) when the March 6 guilty verdict came in.

The care of injured veterans, a subject ignited by a February 18-19 Washington Post investigation of Walter Reed Hospital, has generated a great deal of public interest. Yet the Iraq homefront category, which includes those medical stories, never exceeded 7% of the newshole in any Index.

Last week, for the first time since the Post series was published, there were relatively few Walter Reed-related stories. For now, apparently, concerns over the treatment of wounded veterans have been supplanted by the U.S. Attorney controversy as Washington’s mono mania.

The second biggest story last week, the Iraq policy debate, was fueled largely by three factors—the fourth anniversary of the conflict, the President asking the public for patience, and the House passage of a war funding bill that also includes a withdrawal timetable.

One of the biggest breaking news events last week, the recurrence of Elizabeth Edwards’s cancer, did dominate coverage of the 2008 Presidential race in what was otherwise a relatively slow campaign news week. The March 20 rescue of missing Boy Scout Michael Auberry represented a happy ending to a frightening situation. But the coverage tailed off dramatically after he was found and the story finished ninth for the week at 2%.

The eighth-biggest story of the week (at 3%) was the debate over immigration policy. On many weeks, that topic is defined by CNN’s Dobbs, who uses his show as a soapbox to hammer away for tougher laws and more muscular enforcement. But last week, a number of other outlets examined the issue. It was the second-biggest newspaper story (at 7% of all front page coverage).

On its March 20 nightly newscast, NBC illustrated the national confusion over the issue by contrasting policies in two areas. Suffolk County New York issues traffic fines to people suspected of transporting illegal immigrants to work while New Haven, Connecticut is a “sanctuary city” trying to provide municipal services to undocumented workers.

One thing both sides seem to agree on, noted correspondent Ron Allen, is that “hardly anyone expects a national immigration initiative soon that will help solve the problem.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ