June 18, 2007

New Twist in Immigration Fight is Big News

PEJ News Coverage Index June 10 - 15, 2007

“In Washington, a dramatic reversal today,” declared ABC evening news anchor Charles Gibson June 15. “One of the president’s top domestic priorities, immigration reform, suddenly has new life after being left for dead just last week.”

The latest twist in a month-long political war over immigration came after President Bush went to Capitol Hill to resurrect a measure that appeared doomed just one week before when Senate backers were unable to bring it to a vote. (The Boston Globe reported that Bush’s June 12 visit to Congress included his first lunch meeting with Senate Republicans in five years.)

The changing arc of the immigration debate helped make it the biggest story the week of June 10-15, filling 10% of the overall newshole, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index. (It was the leading subject in the cable (15%) and radio (11%) sectors.) The week marked the first time in 2007 that immigration was a No. 1 story.

For much of the year, immigration was a backburner subject. But since Senators worked out a compromise bill on May 17, the topic has finished among the top-five stories each week. That was in part thanks to the bill triggering an outpouring of heated opposition from talk show hosts such as radio’s Rush Limbaugh and CNN’s Lou Dobbs. (From May 13-June 15, immigration was the second-biggest story overall, trailing only the 2008 presidential race.)

The passions stirred by this issue were on display during a June 14 debate on Fox News Channel’s “O’Reilly Factor” between commentators Michelle Malkin and Geraldo Rivera. Malkin, a supporter of tough enforcement against undocumented or illegal aliens, declared that Rivera “suffers from open-border narcissism on this issue.”

Rivera responded that Malkin’s goal is “population transfer. She wants to turn every neighbor into…a snitch, a rat.”

And that was one of the more polite exchanges between the two.

The second-biggest story behind the immigration furor last week was the quasi-civil war in the Palestinian territories that pitted the Islamist Hamas faction against the Western- backed Fatah forces. The story filled 9% of the overall newshole as defined by our Index and was the No. 1 story in the newspaper (9%), online (19%), network TV (11%) sectors. Newshole in the Index is the total time on television and radio and column inches in print and online news outlets.

The intra-Palestinian strife was but one of four top-10 stories connected to the spiraling violence in the Middle East. Bloodshed on the ground in Iraq was the third-biggest story (7%), while the policy debate over the war (3%) was the sixth-biggest story. Simmering tensions between the U.S. and Iran was the number nine story at 2%.

Immigration was the leading domestic story last week, but not the only one to make the top-10 list. The 2008 race for the White House, even in a relatively slow week, was the fourth biggest topic at 7%. A failed no-confidence vote against Attorney General Alberto Gonzales—as well as Congressional subpoenas for former White House staffers Harriet Miers and Sara Taylor—drove coverage of the U.S. attorneys scandal to become fifth-biggest story of the week (at 3%). And the news that former vice-presidential aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby could not delay his jail sentence while he appeals the verdict in the Valerie Plame leak case was the tenth leading story at 2%

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.)

In a week also marked by a fatal bomb attack on a Lebanese legislator, the news out of the Mideast was discouragingly bloody.

That led to a host of reportage that seems all too depressingly familiar. “Tonight the Middle East exploding in violence from Beirut to Gaza to Iraq,” is how Lou Dobbs opened his June 13 cable program, as he wondered whether “a regional war could be at hand.”

An analysis in the June 15 Los Angeles Times noted that, “The violence has dimmed hopes that Palestinians and Israelis might someday reach an agreement for side-by-side nations and raised questions over how Israel responds to having Hamas, which calls for the Jewish state’s destruction, indisputably in charge in Gaza.”

Hamas’s seizure of Gaza, followed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s move to exile Hamas from the government, seemed to turn the quest for a two-state solution (Israel and the Palestinians) into a three-state problem: Israel, Fatah in the West Bank, and Hamas in Gaza.

In Iraq, the biggest news coming last week was the bombing of a major Shiite shrine in Samarra, the second attack on that facility in about 16 months. The first bombing, back in February 2006, is widely viewed as having been responsible for triggering a bloody wave of sectarian violence in that country.

In some ways, the bitter internal U.S. debate over Iraq has been in a holding pattern since May 24 when Congress voted to continue funding the war but did not include timetables for withdrawal of the troops. The key players seem to be biding their time in advance of the widely anticipated September “surge” status report by General David Patraeus.

But on Dobbs’s June 13 show, CNN correspondent Ed Henry reported on press secretary Tony Snow’s remarks casting some doubt on whether the September report would be a “pivotal moment.”

“After weeks of the White House promising a major September progress report on the increase of U.S. troops in Iraq, spokesman Tony Snow is trying to dial that back,” Henry suggested while the caption on the screen read “Change in Iraq Policy?”

Among the developments driving coverage of the conflict between Washington and Tehran were allegations by the U.S. government last week of “irrefutable evidence” that Iran is arming the Taliban in Afghanistan. Until now, the Sunni-based Taliban and the Shiite-based Iranian government have been considered fierce foes. A Taliban-Tehran alliance would represent an anti-U.S. marriage of convenience.

Two subjects with less serious implications started out among the top 10-stories and dropped off the list as the week went on. Although her brief release and abrupt re-incarceration turned socialite Paris Hilton’s jail saga into a top-five story during the week of June 3-8, the heiress’s life behind bars generated only 1% of the coverage last week.

When it came to cultural buzz, far more attention was lavished on another criminal, New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano. According to the coverage, the much-debated closing scene in the June 10 final episode of the HBO series “The Sopranos” was either a) uniquely brilliant in the annals of television, or b) an inexcusable and infuriating copout.

The raging argument was over whether creator David Chase wanted viewers to believe his brutal but endearing protagonist Tony Soprano got whacked or went with his life in a final scene halted by an abrupt 10-second screen blackout. How big a deal was this? All three major network newscasts June 11 ran stories on the controversy.

NBC anchor Brian Williams summed up the message of the finale thusly: “In other words, come up with your own ending.”

Early in the week, as the mainstream media digested the last episode, the Sopranos’ last show was actually the fourth-biggest story in the Index. But as time went on and much of the debate seemed to migrate to the blogosphere, the subject plummeted all the way to…

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: Due to a technical error, the Friday morning radio news headlines from ABC news radio and CBS news radio were not included in this week's sample.