April 4, 2007

Anna Nicole Smith – Anatomy of a Feeding Frenzy

Shortly after 2 p.m. on February 8, news outlets began reporting that playmate/heiress Anna Nicole Smith had been found unconscious at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood Florida. What followed for the next 23 days struck many observers as a media feeding frenzy that turned a tabloid tangle into one of the nation’s biggest news events.

When MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on February 19 asked Iraq veteran Paul Rieckhoff whether the debate about Iraq was harming troop morale, Reickhoff told him that instead, “morale is impacted…by the fact that America is paying attention to ….Anna Nicole Smith…”

How big was the Anna Nicole Smith story? How pervasive a media phenomenon was it? Can any lessons be learned about the media from the episode?

This PEJ Index Special Report of the 23 days of the Anna Nicole story—from her death on February 8* to her burial on March 2—reveals that it was indeed a major story in the national press, though not equally so across outlets. Only two other stories during that time—the debate over Iraq and the 2008 Presidential race—generated more attention in than Smith’s demise—and those only barely.

Yet the sense that the Smith soap opera—and the clips of her vamping in scanty attire—was a wall-to-wall event from which there was no escape in the media is something of a misimpression.

The Smith saga did not attract major coverage from all the media sectors studied, which includes 48 different outlets across five media sectors. (Please see the methodology for a complete list.) Instead, it was driven largely by relentless attention from two—both television-based. One was network morning news. The other, even bigger, was cable TV news, where this story accounted for nearly a quarter of all the airtime.

What’s more, not all channels devoted equal time to the story. In network morning shows, the story was covered more heavily by CBS and NBC.

And on cable, the Fox News Channel fixated most on the story, followed by MSNBC.

These findings add to the evidence of cable’s fixation on one big event. But they also go beyond that. The fact that for the most part, the newspapers, web sites, nightly network newscasts, and radio news outlets treated Smith’s death as a blip on the radar screen speaks to cable’s ability to magnify an event until it feels like the only story on the entire media agenda.

In reality, the media landscape is diverse with different news priorities. What consumers learn about—and what they do not learn about—can vary dramatically depending on where they go for news.

* The content captured for this analysis begins at 3 P.M. ET, February 8th, 2007, about the time Anna Nicole Smith’s death was announced.