April 30, 2007

Iraq Policy and Presidential Politics Top the News

PEJ News Coverage Index April 22 - 27, 2007

On April 24, the eve of his official announcement for president, Senator John McCain made one of his frequent appearances on Comedy Central’s “Daily Show with John Stewart.” But if McCain expected a jovial chuckle fest, he was wrong. Stewart immediately needled him for his support of the Iraq war. McCain responded with his own barbed humor.

“I had something really picked out for you, too,” the Senator said. “It’s a nice little IED (improvised explosive device) to put under your desk.”

McCain’s sit-down with Stewart was connected to the two biggest news stories last week—the Iraq debate and the 2008 presidential battle. It highlighted McCain’s position as an Iraq hawk in a week when Congress voted to impose withdrawal deadlines. Stewart’s aggressive jousting with McCain was also reflective of how some of the media are treating his candidacy this time around. The man who’d been something of a press darling in the 2000 presidential race faces less friendly coverage in 2008—in part because of the war.

After two weeks in which breaking mega-stories (Don Imus’s firing and the Virginia Tech massacre) dominated the news, two familiar ongoing issues generated the most coverage last week. The top story was the Iraq policy debate at 15% of the overall newshole, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index from April 22-27. Although the debate over Iraq has consistently been a top-five story in the weekly Index, this marked the first time it had been the number one story since mid-February.

The crowded and active race to succeed George Bush in the White House—which included a debate among Democrats last week—followed in second place at 10%.

Both stories gained significant momentum late in the week. The policy debate—which generated the most coverage online (15%), on network TV (20%), cable news (17%) and radio (16%)—was fueled by the House’s and the Senate’s passage of Iraq funding measures with withdrawal timetables. The President upped the political ante and drama by vowing to veto the legislation. Meanwhile, the televised April 26 debate from South Carolina generated a major portion of the presidential race coverage for the week.

In last week’s Index, the April 16 shooting spree at Virginia Tech was the biggest story of the year, filling 51% of the newshole. This week, however, it fell to third place at 7%, leading only in the newspaper sector. The dramatically diminished coverage seemed to reflect some trauma fatigue as well as the realization that there are no easy explanations for the deadly rampage

While the bloodshed in Iraq was the fourth biggest story (5%) last week, an event that reflected poorly on the Pentagon was number six at 3%. That was the April 24 Congressional testimony of Kevin Tillman and Jessica Lynch. Tillman, the brother of former NFL player Pat Tillman, talked abut how Pat’s death by friendly fire in Afghanistan was initially covered up by the Pentagon. Lynch was the young servicewoman who said her capture and rescue in Iraq were portrayed in falsely heroic terms. The Tillman-Lynch news was a top five story in online, network and cable news. But coverage slowed significantly after two days.

The fifth biggest story (4%) was the death Boris Yeltsin, the first democratically elected Russian leader and a man who defines the term “mixed legacy.” As the Los Angeles Times put it in a front-page April 24 obit: “Yeltsin’s contradictions were as sweeping as the changes he wrought on his countrymen.” The April 23 death of famed author and journalist David Halberstam was not quite a top-10 story, filling 1% of the overall newshole. Not surprisingly, newspapers gave the most play (3%) to the distinguished career of the former New York Times staffer.

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.)

A number of developments last week converged to drive coverage of the Iraq policy debate, none more than the looming funding showdown between Bush and a Congress now dominated by Democrats. General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, garnered headlines when he appeared before Congress last week. Former CIA director George Tenet’s controversial new book—“At the Center of the Storm” in which he accuses the White House of going to war with Iraq without having conducted a serious internal debate—also made quite a bit of news.

McCain’s April 24 appearance on the “Daily Show” created a bit of a furor of its own, particularly when anti-war Congressman John Murtha took umbrage at his joke about placing an IED under Stewart’s desk and asked for a McCain apology.

While not receiving as much overall media attention as the Democrats’ debate, McCain’s official campaign launch was a significant story that attracted some telling coverage. An April 25 report on NBC’s “Today” show cited a poll showing Rudy Giuliani with an 11 point lead over McCain and pointed to McCain’s fundraising problems and “embrace of President Bush’s Iraq war strategy” as two political obstacles.

Thus far, McCain has faced some skeptical media scrutiny about the quality of his campaign. And the change in tone of coverage between his 2000 and 2008 races was noted in an April 26 Washington Post piece by Howard Kurtz headlined: “Journalists and John McCain: Is The Honeymoon Really Over?”

Meanwhile, if the media were hoping for a slam-bang affair during last week’s first debate among Democrats, those hopes went largely unfulfilled. The consensus verdict was probably summed up in this New York Times April 27 headline: “In Mostly Sedate Debate, Democrats Show More Unity Than Strife.”

Finally, the controversy over Don Imus’s firing for remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team flared a bit last week, finishing as the 10th biggest story overall, at 1%. (It was a top five story in both cable at 3%, and radio at 5%.) The coverage included an April 26 appearance by Imus’s producer and sidekick Bernard McGuirk on the Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes.”

While McGuirk argued that the Rutgers remarks were made in the context of the “comedy and ridicule” that is the show’s stock-in-trade, he acknowledged that some of the backlash was legitimate and that Imus was right to apologize. But on the subject of Al Sharpton, who helped lead the campaign to get Imus fired, McGuirk was far less conciliatory.

Referring to Sharpton as “a classless clown” and “sanctimonious skunk,” McGuirk complained that “the media treated him like he was Nelson Mandela, for God’s sake.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: Due to the Democratic debate on MSNBC the night of Thursday, April 26, our sample included MSNBC's programming that evening from 9:00 – 9:30 pm ET instead of the normal rotation which would have included 7:00 – 7:30 pm ET.