May 25, 2007

Iraq Dominates PEJ’s First Quarterly NCI Report

U.S. Attorney Firings

If there was any major story in the first quarter of the year that revealed an apparent disconnect between news consumers and news producers, it was the investigation into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys that put Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s future in jeopardy.

Overall, that subject proved to be the fourth biggest story of the year (at 4%), right before the increasing tension between the U.S. and Iran, which was 3%.

Coverage was remarkably consistent across all media sectors. It was the fifth biggest story in newspapers (3%), online (4%), network television (4%), the fourth biggest story in radio (also at 4%) and the sixth biggest story on cable (also at 4%). It received virtually the same amount of coverage throughout all platforms.

But a survey taken by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press at the height of the coverage in late March found that only 20% of the public was paying very close attention to the news about the investigation. It also revealed that almost half the public—46%—found the story boring. (News interest in this topic appears to have had a clearly partisan tinge. While 59% of Democrats said they found the U.S. attorneys case interesting, only 42% of Republicans agreed).

The story gained media momentum in early March when one of the fired prosecutors, David Iglesias, testified before the new Democratic-controlled Congress that was probing whether the firings were politically motivated. Iglesias said he “felt sick” after getting a call from Republican Senator Pete Domenici asking him about the timing of indictments in a corruption case. From there, the story picked up dramatic momentum.

By the week of March 11—when Gonzales embarked on a media tour to acknowledge the firings were handled poorly and Democrats threatened more subpoenas—the case had become the biggest news story in the country (16%). The following week, with the confrontation depicted as a constitutional showdown between the executive and legislative branches—a term that conjures up Watergate memories—the story was the biggest in the country again, this time filling 18% of the overall newshole.

Fired U.S. Attorney Scandal over Time – News Media Coverage vs. Public Interest
Feb 25, ‘07 – Mar 31, ‘07

Source: PEJ’s News Coverage Index & News Interest Index surveys from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press
Note: The News Interest surveys are conducted at the conclusion of the week (following the news coverage index). Percent of Public Interest refers to percent of people who followed the scandal “Very Closely”

At that point, the level of coverage of the U.S. attorneys flap had substantially exceeded that of two other major Washington scandals—the trial of former vice presidential aide Scooter Libby and the conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital.

By late March, the big event was the congressional testimony of former Gonzales chief of staff Kyle Sampson, who contradicted Gonzales about his role in the firings. (The story took up 11% of the newshole that week.) But political Washington was now engaged in a full-throated guessing game about the Attorney General’s fate.

“Does Gonzales have to resign?” asked MSNBC’s Chris Matthews bluntly. Other pundits and hosts were now describing the situation as “Gonzo-gate” or “Gonzales-gate.”

Ironically, when Gonzales finally had what many assumed would be his make-or-break moment—an eagerly-anticipated April 19 hearing before Congress that occurred after the first 90 days of the year—the event was largely overshadowed by another story. The media were preoccupied with the April 16 massacre that killed 33 people on the campus of Virginia Tech. That tragedy was easily the biggest story of the year, and the only one that accounted for more than half (51%) of the overall coverage in a single week.