May 29, 2007

Media Give President A Win in War Funding Debate

PEJ News Coverage Index May 20 - 25, 2007

Ever since President Bush’s January 10 speech announcing the “surge” option in Iraq, the Washington-based debate over U.S. war policy has been the biggest story in the news, according to PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index.

For most of those nearly five months, the debate has followed a basic story line—a White House intent on beefing up the U.S. military presence in Iraq versus a new Congress led by Democrats trying to wind down the military role there.

Last week, that Iraq policy debate was again the biggest story in the news, accounting for 10% of all coverage from May 20-25, according to PEJ’s Index. The key event was a May 24 Congressional vote that funded the war but did not include troop withdrawal timelines.

For much of those five months, coverage has frequently depicted a beleaguered President battling against Democrats, public opinion and even some members of his own party. But last week the coverage generally portrayed him as a clear winner in the tug of war. Many accounts stressed that it could be a temporary victory in a battle to be rejoined when General David Petraeus issues his September status report on Iraq. But for now, the verdict was clear.

“Congress Bows to Bush, OKs Iraq Funds” was the headline on the Associated Press story about the vote.

On ABC’s “World News Tonight” George Stephanopoulos reported that the President had earned a “victory” in the funding battle while “Democrats were denied their top goal, a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.”

Subbing for Anderson Cooper, CNN’s John King summed things up while the caption on the screen read: “Democrats Cave.’’ “The game of political chicken seems to be ending,” said King. “Democrats in Congress who say they were elected to bring the troops home didn’t have the votes to do it.”

Bush’s political victory was just one element in a week in which the war in Iraq, the roiling Middle East, and the war against terror more generally dominated news coverage. In all, nine of the top ten biggest stories last week had some Middle East or terror connection.

Some of these were quite direct. Aside from the policy debate, the third biggest story was events inside Iraq (9% overall, and the top story in newspapers and online) where the re-appearance of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr was a major development. The Lebanese Army’s battle with radical Islamists at a refugee camp was the fourth biggest story at 6%. Tensions between the U.S. and Iran was the eighth biggest story at 3% and the impact of the Iraq war at home finished tenth at 2%.

Three other top-10 stories had some, but less direct, connection with the Middle East and terrorism. That includes immigration (second biggest at 10%) where problems with border enforcement have raised the specter of terrorist threats. Last week’s coverage of the 2008 presidential race (fifth at 6%) included reports on how various candidates voted on the Iraq funding bill. And rising gas prices (sixth at 4%) are related to our need for Middle East oil.

The ninth biggest story (2%)—a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey of Muslim Americans—found that a majority were assimilated and satisfied with their lives. But it also made news by registering Muslims’ significant level of concern about how the U.S. is conducting the war on terror.

Only one top-10 story —the investigation into the fired U.S. attorneys (seventh at 4%) marked by the Congressional testimony of former Justice Department official Monica Goodling —was strictly a domestic issue that was not tied in the coverage to events in the Mideast.

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.)

For the second straight week, the debate over immigration policy was a major story, one triggered by the May 17 announcement of a Senate agreement on a compromise bill. In some ways, opponents of the compromise appear to be considerably more passionate and engaged than supporters. That may explain why the two media sectors that provided the greatest percentage of coverage last week (cable at 14% and radio at 22%) are home to talk media hosts—such as CNN’s Lou Dobbs and talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh—who have been hammering away at the bill on a regular basis.

After the Republican candidates dominated coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign the week of May 13-18, things returned to the more typical pattern last week. The Democratic contenders received more than twice as much coverage as their GOP rivals. A number of events—including Bill Richardson’s official announcement and Michelle Obama’s statement that she is her husband’s “wife,” not his chief advsior—helped drive the coverage.

So, too, did two new books about the candidate who, thus far, has attracted the most media attention—“A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton” by Carl Bernstein and “Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton” by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr.

In a report on the May 25 edition of PBS’s “NewsHour,” Chris Cillizza, of Washingtonpost.com, described the impact of the new books as “a lot of pebbles hitting the Clinton campaign” but “no boulder falling on it.” Still, the reports of a pact in which both Bill and Hillary Clinton planned to be president for two terms and the details of a marriage under extreme stress generated heavy media coverage.

On the Republican side, one story line was John McCain’s heated exchange with fellow Republican Senator John Cornyn over immigration that resurrected old questions about the Arizona Senator’s temper. (McCain is a supporter of the immigration bill and Cornyn is not.)

Also two of the top-10 stories last week ended up, at least in part, being referenda on the news media themselves. The first involved heightened tension between the U.S. and Iran. (This is before the lengthy May 28 meeting between U.S. and Iranian officials over the situation in Iraq.)

In the opening moments of ABC’s May 22 newscast, anchor Charlie Gibson announced that the network had developed an exclusive story revealing that the President had “authorize[d] the CIA to carry out covert operations against Iran’s government.” The report, by investigative correspondent Brian Ross, indicated that the White House had approved several secret initiatives—including propaganda and media campaigns—designed to “destabilize the Iranian regime.”

Some of the subsequent coverage focused on whether ABC was wrong to reveal this secret plot against Iran. On May 23, Dan Abrams, sitting in for MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, hosted a spirited debate on the issue of journalistic freedom versus government secrecy.

Several Republican presidential hopefuls made news by criticizing the network, including former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney who stated that he “was shocked to see the ABC News report….The reporting has the potential of jeopardizing our national security.”

Another spirited outbreak of media criticism occurred over the reporting of the Pew Research Center’s Muslim American survey. Seizing on the report headline, “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream,” and the 71% of Muslim Americans who believe people can get ahead in the U.S. if they work hard, a number of outlets played up some of the positive aspects of the survey.

The USA Today May 23 front-page headline read “American Muslims reject extremes” while the Minneapolis Star Tribune used the headline “U.S. Muslims ‘largely assimilated, happy.’” But that provoked the ire of some conservative commentators who accused the media of downplaying such findings as the 26% of Muslim Americans under 30 who said suicide bombing was “often,” “sometimes” or “rarely” justified.

“If you get past the biased press coverage and the headlines,” asserted radio talk host Rush Limbaugh, “it is clear that America has not moderated Islam or its adherents.’’

Filling in as guest on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News Channel show, former Ohio Congressman John Kasich blamed the media for focusing on the upbeat. He pointed out that the journalists don’t tend to write stories “where it says ‘Boy Scout helped a woman cross [the] street.’”

“There’s a big story here, which is 26% of young Muslims say that suicide bombing is justified,” Kasich asserted.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: Due to technical errors, CBS's The Early Show from Thursday, May 24, and CBS radio news headlines from Monday morning, Tuesday evening, and Wednesday morning were not included in this week's sample.