May 21, 2007

Turmoil Inside Iraq Leads the Week’s News

PEJ News Coverage Index May 13 - 18, 2007

Even with all the bloodshed in Iraq, the “honor killing” report on the May 17 edition of CNN’s “Situation Room” stood out as a particularly grim episode. As the photo of an attractive 17-year-old Iraqi girl appeared on the screen, anchor Wolf Blitzer warned viewers that “some of the images you’re about to see will be very, very disturbing.”

What followed was grainy but clearly visible cell phone video of the young woman being kicked and stoned to death by a frantic mob for the sin of spending time with a young man of a different religious background. The final image showed her lying face down on the ground, her apparently lifeless body surrounded by a pool of blood.  

The violence did not end there. According to CNN correspondent Brian Todd, a group of militants later retaliated for the girl’s killing by slaughtering two dozen people.

Last week was one of the rare times this year when events inside Iraq generated more news coverage than the Washington-based policy debate over the war. And it marked the first time in 2007 that the bloodshed in Iraq—which filled 10% of the overall newshole—was the biggest story of the week, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index for the period from May 13—May 18.

As horrific as the honor killing story was—and as much as it says about the sectarian divisions plaguing that country—it was only a very small part of last week’s coverage of the situation in Iraq. The topic that dominated reporting inside Iraq was the continuing search for three missing U.S. soldiers who were taken, reportedly by Al Qaeda, during a May 12 ambush. More than half the stories about events inside Iraq last week were devoted largely to the hunt for the three missing Americans.  

Also contributing to coverage of the situation in Iraq was the news that Britain’s Prince Harry would not be headed to the war zone because of fears he would be exposed to an unacceptable threat level.

Two weeks ago—fueled by the news that some GOP legislators had bluntly informed President Bush of their concerns about the war—the Iraq policy debate was the dominant story, filling 14% of the newshole. Last week, it fell to the fifth biggest story, generating only 5% of the overall news coverage.  

After events inside Iraq—which led the online and network news sectors—the second biggest story of the week (also at 10%) was coverage of the already crowded 2008 Presidential race. Next was the debate over immigration, which attracted its highest level of attention for the year (9%). That was thanks primarily to the announcement that the Senate and White House had reached agreement on a compromise proposal.

Three other top 10 stories last week were not directly about politics, but they all had significant political implications.  

The death of Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell (fourth biggest story at 6%) triggered a lively debate about his role in making conservative Christians a core element of the Republican Party. The resignation of World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz (sixth biggest story at 4%) was ostensibly about a conflict of interest involving a pay raise for his girlfriend. But the backdrop to the resignation drama, and a likely source of resentment against him, was Wolfowitz’s role as an intellectual architect of the war with Iraq.

And last week’s dramatic Congressional testimony by former deputy attorney general James Comey was the eighth biggest story at 3%. Comey testified about how, in 2004, then White House counsel Alberto Gonzales went to the hospital room of a seriously ill Attorney General John Ashcroft to try and seek recertification oft the administration’s controversial warantless wiretapping program.  

If there had been a growing sense that the beleaguered Gonzales—with the backing of President Bush—would likely survive the probe into the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys, Comey’s recollection of the sickbed incident seemed to create new doubts about the Attorney General’s job security.

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.)

The 2008 battle for the White House was the biggest story last week in the newspaper (8%) and cable news (17%) sectors. And a good deal of the coverage was of the South Carolina Republican debate, with a number of post-mortems offering the view that former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani rebounded well from a shaky performance in the May 3 California Republican debate. 

But there was another reason why stories about GOP presidential hopefuls outnumbered stories about the Democratic candidates by almost 3-1 last week. One emerging theme in the Republican race is a sense of doubt about the 10-man field as currently constituted and speculation about whether other contenders— from former senator and actor Fred Thompson to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg—might step into the fray. (Democrats were not immune to this kind of speculation either.  Time magazine’s cover story, “The Last Temptation of Al Gore,” examines the idea of the former vice president entering the presidential field.) 

On the May 15 “Today Show,” correspondent Kelly O’Donnell talked about the “flirt factor” with a number of players—Thompson, Bloomberg, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel—potentially contemplating a White House bid as either a Republican or independent.   

A day earlier on his MSNBC cable show, Tucker Carlson noted that “so far, polls show…the GOP faithful are disappointed with the current field…that dispirited group, known as the base.” The conversation with Carlson and his guests then went on to speculate at some length about the possibility of an independent run by a ticket featuring Republicans Hagel and Bloomberg. 

The debate over immigration policy has often been passionate and divisive and the subject has provided plenty of fodder for talk show hosts, particularly CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who is an advocate of tough enforcement. (Last week, it finished second in the cable sector at 11% and led the radio sector at 18% of the coverage.)    

On its May 18 nightly newscast, CBS first ran a story about how difficult it is to patrol the porous U.S. Mexican border. Then, at the end of the broadcast, it produced an “Assignment America” story that hard-liners on the immigration issue might criticize as propaganda. 

The segment, which anchor Katie Couric dubbed “the story of an American dream come true,” focused on a youngster who first entered the country at the Mexican border as an illegal immigrant and got his first job picking weeds. Today, at 39, he is the director of brain tumor surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.  

The death of Falwell—which attracted more coverage in cable (10%) and newspapers (7%) than in other sectors—presented the media with an interesting balancing act. They had to assess the legacy of a man who was a potent religious and political force as well as a polarizing figure who initially pinned part of the blame for 9/11 on homosexuals, feminists and the ACLU. 

A lengthy May 16 Washington Post obit that began on page one quoted former Falwell speechwriter Mel White as saying: “He was a media genius, but part of that was exaggerating, hyperbole, and outrageousness. He once told me that if he didn’t have people protesting him, he’d have to hire them. He felt it was publicity for the kingdom of God.” 

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: Due to a technical error, Rush Limbaugh's show from Monday, May 14, is not included in this week's sample.