June 11, 2007

Paris Has the Media Burning

PEJ News Coverage Index June 3 - 8, 2007

It was shortly after one p.m. eastern time on Friday June 8 when cable viewers witnessed a scene that was part paparazzi, part “Cops,” and part “Entertainment Tonight.”

A handcuffed Paris Hilton was deposited into sheriff’s car #865 for a trip back to court where Judge Michael Sauer would send her back to jail after her sudden and early release the day before. The spectacle of cameras trained on the car winding its way slowly through the Los Angeles streets was, in a way, strangely reminiscent of O.J. Simpson’s slow-speed car chase 13 years earlier.

Hilton managed to evade the waiting press hordes on her return to the courthouse, but that did not chill their ardor. “The media frenzy is wild,” declared CNN’s entertainment correspondent Sibila Vargas.

Paris Hilton’s problems represented only the second celebrity tabloid tale this year—the first being Anna Nicole Smith’s death—to make the roster of top five stories, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index from June 3-8. The saga of socialite/party girl Hilton’s release and return to prison after serving a few days of what was to have been a 23-day sentence for violating drunk driving probation was the fifth biggest story of the week, filling 4% of the newshole.

The Hilton tale was covered most heavily in cable (third biggest story at 9%) and on radio (fourth story at 7%). And the bulk of the attention came late in the week. For the two days of June 7 and 8, Hilton generated 10% of the overall coverage, filling 18% of the radio and 21% of the cable airtime.

Cable’s attraction to the story was clearly illustrated by MSNBC on June 8. Declaring “here’s Paris Hilton now,” anchor Contessa Brewer abruptly cut away from a discussion of the retirement of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace to the scene at Hilton’s home as she prepared for her ride back to court.

Hilton’s legal drama occurred on a very crowded news week. Fueled by coverage of two major debates, the 2008 Presidential race was the top story (15%) leading in the newspaper (9%), network TV (11%), cable (25%) and radio (15%) sectors. The legislative setback to the compromise Senate immigration measure was the second leading story of the week, filling 9% of the newshole. The prospect of a new Cold War, triggered by U.S.-Russian tensions over American plans to install a missile defense system in Europe, was the third biggest story at 7%. (It also accounted for 20% of all the coverage in the online sector.)

Both parties were tainted by scandal last week. The sentencing of former Dick Cheney aide “Scooter” Libby to 30 months in jail for perjury and obstruction of justice in the case involving CIA operative Valerie Plame was the fourth biggest story (5%). And the indictment of Louisiana Democratic Congressman William Jefferson on racketeering, bribery and money laundering charges helped make Congressional corruption scandals the seventh story at 3%.

Two terrorism stories—one that represented a victory for the Bush administration’s strategy and one that represented a defeat—also made the top-10 list last week. The successful breakup of a plot to attack JFK Airport was the tenth biggest story at 3%. And rulings by military judges who threw out cases against two U.S. terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay was a major part the eighth biggest story on domestic terrorism (also at 3%). The only story about Iraq to make the top-10 list—events on the ground there—finished sixth at 4%.

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.)

Aside from the CNN-hosted Republican and Democratic debates last week, another major story line was the June 4 forum at which Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards gathered to discuss their faith. Talking about religion and mixing faith and public policy has traditionally been a somewhat tricky issue for Democrats. But on ABC’s June 5 edition of “Good Morning America,” correspondent Dan Harris reported that “some Democrats think they are now in a position to close the so-called ‘God Gap.’”

On the Republican side, the issue of who isn’t yet in the 2008 race continues to loom large in the coverage. The June 4 edition of MSNBC’s “Scarborough Country” featured a “Fox News Sunday” interview in which possible candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accused the government of “not functioning…not getting the job done.”

In a June 5 interview on Fox’s “Hannity & Colmes” former Senator Fred Thompson—who recently announced the formation of a preliminary campaign committee—said he had never really been focused on the White House, but “more and more, I wish that I had the opportunity to do the things that only a President can do.”

For the fourth straight week, the immigration debate—driven by the May 17 compromise that inspired attacks from both the left and the right—was one of the top five stories in the Index. During that time a number of talk hosts, from CNN’s Lou Dobbs to radio talker Rush Limbaugh, engaged in an energetic and aggressive campaign against the bill. By week’s end, they appeared to have been on the victorious side as the bill was pulled from the floor after supporters were unable to bring it to a vote.

The front-page of the June 8 USA Today carried a headline that declared, “Immigration bill not dead yet, backers say.” But the tone of the article was a little more skeptical, noting that the “Senate’s failure to complete the bill now raises questions about whether Congress can deal with the contentious issue with a presidential campaign in gear.”

Coverage of the apparently growing tensions between the U.S. and Russia—and between George Bush and Vladimir Putin—dominated much of the week’s coverage. But the story took something of a surprise twist when, during a private meeting at the G-8 Summit, the Russian leader offered to accept the controversial missile defense system in the ex-Soviet republic, Azerbaijan.

While acknowledging “serious diplomatic and technical challenges ahead,” the New York Times June 8 page-one story reported that the Putin offer and Bush’s willingness to consider it reflected a “desire on both sides to cool the hostile exchanges that in recent months had driven relations to a low point in the post-cold-war era.”

Yet with all the weighty events of the week, Paris Hilton still managed to command 8% of the network coverage on June 7 and 8 as she bounced between a jail cell and her LA home. What had started as a celebrity story about someone with a penchant for publicity and legal trouble had suddenly turned into a morality tale about double standards in the criminal justice system.

On the June 7 CBS nightly newscast, correspondent Bill Whitaker reported that “a fed-up public is going ballistic” after learning of Hilton’s medical release after only three days in jail. (The Hilton story made all three major network newscasts). Noting that Al Sharpton was among those adding his voice to protest this “celebrity injustice,” Whitaker declared that “from the blogosphere to the legal sphere, criticism of Paris is burning.”

One day later, with the media hot on her trail, a weepy and distraught Hilton was sent back to her cell.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: On both Monday and Friday evenings, CNN aired a special program on presidential candidates and their faith. CNN also aired a 2-hour debate on the evening of Tuesday, June 5. We did not include any of these programs in this week's sample, although we did include some of CNN's coverage before and after the Tuesday night debate.