April 4, 2007

Anna Nicole Smith - Anatomy of a Feeding Frenzy

Anna, Iraq, and Presidential Politics

Overall, that extensive morning show and cable output is largely responsible for the fact that Smith’s death was the third biggest story, accounting for 8% of all the news coverage studied by PEJ in that slightly more than three-week period. It missed being No. 1 by the narrowest of margins.

The Iraq policy debate, which included a crucial House vote against the President’s surge policy, accounted for 9% of the overall coverage. The presidential race, which featured campaign announcements from Barack Obama, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, also generated 9%.

Far further down the list during this period—attracting less than half the coverage of Anna Nicole—were such potentially far-reaching events as the nuclear deal with North Korea, renewed fighting in Afghanistan, the Scooter Libby trial, and the February stock market plunge.

Those overall numbers, though, in many ways gloss over the profound differences in media sectors and don’t offer much insight into where the coverage was coming from.

For those who turned to radio, the Internet or newspaper front pages, the Anna Nicole story was a much smaller event, not even reaching five percent of the newshole in any of those media (radio and online were tied at 4%, and it was a mere 1% for the papers).

Anna Nicole Smith Coverage: By Medium

Feb 8 – March 2, 2007

PEJ

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Yet in morning network news, the Anna Nicole story made up far more—filling 15% of the first half hour of these programs during this period.[1] Within that genre, coverage was particularly heavy on CBS’s “Early Show,” which devoted 20% of its airtime to the story, and NBC’s “Today Show,” at 17%. ABC’s “Good Morning America” gave the event much less attention—just 10% in its top half-hour of programming.

Anna Nicole Smith Coverage: Network Morning News Shows

Total Coverage by Network, Feb 8 – March 2, 2007

PEJ

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It was on ubiquitous cable TV news channels that the full force of the Anna Nicole story took hold, where it seemed reminiscent of such pre-9/11 marathons as the deaths of Princess Di and JFK Jr. It consumed 22% of the airtime on the cable news programs examined in this study making it far and away the biggest cable story in that period.

Even those numbers may not capture the full extent of cable’s fascination. If two programs not in PEJ’s index were included—Larry King on CNN and Greta Van Susteren on Fox—the numbers would be noticeably higher.[2] CNN’s “Larry King Live” tackled the Smith case in 16 of 21 shows from February 8 through March 2. “On the Record,” hosted by Van Susteren, devoted part of 16 out of 17 shows to Smith-related coverage.

Within the cable news genre, Smith was particularly a Fox News Channel phenomenon. In the programs studied, that network devoted almost one-third of its airtime (32%) to the Smith story in all its permutations. MSNBC came next at 21%. CNN stood out for its lack of coverage—just 14% of airtime studied, less than half that of Fox. And that gap might have been larger had Van Susteren and King both been factored in.

Anna Nicole Smith Coverage: Cable News

Total Coverage by Channel, Feb 8 – March 2, 2007

PEJ

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(It is worth noting that after disappearing from the media radar screen for several weeks, the Smith story spiked again after the March 26 autopsy report concluding she died of an accidental drug overdose. That was the tenth biggest overall story in the week of March 25-30. And not surprisingly, cable—at 5% of the newshole—gave it the most coverage.)

On his February 8 show, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly acknowledged he wasn’t sure Smith merited all this interest. “I’m looking at her,” he said, “and seeing a media creation.”

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer offered a rationale for the coverage on the February 9 edition of “Situation Room” after his sidekick Jack Cafferty had attacked the media for treating the Smith story like “tabloid gold.”

“I know a lot of people are complaining about that,” said Blitzer. “But a lot of people are also watching.”

If Smith’s celebrity was a media creation, the media’s fixation on her death can largely be attributed to cable news’s ravenous appetite for the story.

 

 

1. For the Weekly News Index, the Project studies the 1st half hour of the morning news programs, the half hour research has shown to be most focused on news events of the day.

2. The PEJ News Index does not include Larry King Live or Greta Van Susteren’s “On the Record” because they are not general interest news programs. For this special report, we examined transcripts of those shows.