June 4, 2007

The Infamous ‘TB Traveler’ is the Top Story

PEJ News Coverage Index May 27 - June 1, 2007

During a televised press conference on May 29, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) director Dr. Julie Gerberding informed the nation that a man carrying a very dangerous form of drug-resistant tuberculosis may have infected passengers aboard several cross-Atlantic flights in May.

Because this “organism is so potentially serious…a federal order of isolation” had been issued for the unnamed infected man, Gerberding explained. It was the first such federal action, she added, in more than 40 years.

Only three days later, on June 1, that mystery man—also known as “Patient Zero”—gave an exclusive interview to Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Wearing a white mask over his mouth, Andrew Speaker, a 31-year-old Atlanta lawyer confined to a Denver hospital, had a message for those who accused him of being a modern day Typhoid Mary.

“I’m very sorry for any grief or pain that I’ve caused anyone,” he said. “I really believed that I wasn’t putting people at risk. [Doctors] told me I wasn’t contagious, I wasn’t dangerous.”

Speaker’s overseas odyssey struck a number of sensitive and critical chords last week. (One doctor told ABC News it was a scenario that “could have been written by Shakespeare.”) It triggered a global public health scare, placed the CDC at the center of a controversy, raised questions about terrorism preparedness and border security, and touched on the basic issue of personal accountability and morality.

Not surprisingly, the case turned out to be the biggest story of the week, filling 12% of the newshole, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index from May 27-June 1. The TB saga was a top five story in all five media sectors, but it was primarily a television phenomenon. It was the top story in both network (16%) and cable TV (24%), although CNN’s prime-time lineup devoted far more time to the subject than Fox’s. And MSNBC’s cable talk lineup virtually ignored the story.

The 2008 Presidential race—the second biggest overall story last week (9%)—was the top event in the newspaper (8%) and radio (15%) sectors. Two major story lines were Republican Fred Thompson inching closer to a formal candidacy and the impact two new books about Hillary Clinton might have on the course of her campaign.

The third biggest story was the situation inside Iraq (7%). But when you add that category together with the impact of the war at home (fourth biggest story at 4%) and the policy debate (seventh biggest story 4%), Iraq combined to account for 15% of all of last week’s coverage.

The continuing debate over immigration policy was the fifth biggest overall subject at 4%. And it was the second leading story on radio where conservative talk hosts continue to hammer away at the May 17 compromise legislation.

Coverage of the sixth biggest story, the conflict with Iran (4%) started off on a mildly optimistic note with news of the May 28 direct talks between Washington and Tehran on the situation in Iraq. But by the end of the week, tensions again ratcheted up as the U.S. issued warnings to Iran’s government about four detained Iranian-Americans and the continuation of its nuclear enrichment program.

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.)

From the moment the news about the TB flight scare broke on May 29, events moved at a brisk pace with new angles regularly revealing themselves. On her May 30 show, CNN’s Paula Zahn interviewed homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve about how the infected lawyer managed to elude authorities in an era when there are serious concerns about everything from bioterrorism to a bird flu pandemic.

“It’s incredibly frightening and embarrassing,” said Zahn. “What if this had been smallpox?”

By May 31, the media reported on another new and surprising wrinkle in the tale. It was learned that Speaker’s new father-in-law, Dr. Robert Cooksey, works as a tuberculosis researcher for the CDC.

NBC’s Brian Williams led his newscast with what he called “a huge twist” in a story that has become “an even more bizarre tale tonight.” The report included footage of Cooksey—who denied having anything to do with Speaker’s infection—issuing a statement warning the media “not to hype this because it is a very complicated situation.”

The next morning, as Speaker emerged from the shadows in his interview with Sawyer, the New York Times published a front-page story describing how the tuberculosis victim managed to cross back into the U.S. from Canada by car despite the warning that had been issued to border agents.

By Friday evening, the story had evolved to the point where the blame game was in full swing. On his June 1 Fox News Channel show, Sean Hannity put it bluntly.

“So who’s to blame for the fiasco, the Speakers or the CDC?” Hannity said. “He was repeatedly told that that he was not infectious…I blame the CDC.”

For her part, Fox News legal analyst Lis Wiehl took a different view, calling Speaker “reckless” and criticizing him for “sneak[ing] into this country.”

If nothing else, this complex saga also says something about television’s growing power as a witness box in the court of public opinion. Not too long ago, one could envision someone like Speaker—who says he’s received considerable hate mail—lying low until media and public interest died down. Not only did he choose to tell his story to ABC’s Sawyer last week. This week, he’s scheduled to chat with the primary practitioner of prime-time schmooze, CNN’s Larry King.

Even as the media seemed preoccupied with Speaker’s story last week, there were several significant events driving coverage of the war in Iraq. The situation on the ground inside Iraq was punctuated by several sobering milestones. After a bloody Memorial Day on which 10 U.S. troops were killed, May 2007 became the third deadliest month in the four-year-old war for American military personnel.

One of the stories fueling interest in the war on the homefront was the announcement by anti-war protestor Cindy Sheehan that she was stepping away from the movement, at least temporarily. In a May 29 interview with liberal radio talk host Ed Schultz, Sheehan said she had been deeply “affected” by the May 24 Congressional vote to continue funding the war without troop withdrawal timetables. It’s “time to reevaluate the direction we’re going in,” she told Schultz. “Obviously, the direction we’re going has stopped being effective.”

Coverage of the Iraq policy debate featured a number of issues including a May 30 report on CNN’s “Situation Room” that the administration might be considering a lengthy, perhaps decades-long, troop presence in Iraq. Host Wolf Blitzer stated that the White House was “raising eyebrows” by citing “the U.S. presence in South Korea as a possible model for the future of the U.S. mission in Iraq.” Blitzer pointed out that there are currently 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, a remnant of a war that ended more than five decades ago.

Several initiatives by President Bush became major news events last week. The ninth biggest story (at 2%) was triggered by the President’s announcement of additional sanctions designed to get the Sudanese government to halt the violence in Darfur. The eighth biggest story (global warming at 2%) was largely a reaction to Bush’s decision, in advance of this week’s G-8 Summit, to call for an international effort to reduce greenhouse gases.

The President’s move triggered a fairly lively media debate about whether the U.S. is now seriously embracing some of the more aggressive environmental policies of many of its allies. A June 1 story in the Austin American-Statesman reported on the administration’s greenhouse gas initiative, but also published critics’ complaints that the President is “ignoring other international efforts on climate change that are already under way and is trying to avoid taking action until he leaves office.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: MSNBC did not run any of its normal programming on Monday, May 28, due to the Memorial Day holiday. Therefore, we did not include any of MSNBC's Monday shows in this week's sample.