July 2, 2007

Immigration is Top Story, but Terror Takes Over

PEJ News Coverage Index June 24 - 29, 2007

After more than 40 days of debate—and the dramatic intervention of President Bush—the biggest domestic issue of the year apparently was resolved on June 28 when the immigration bill collapsed in the Senate.

So it was no surprise that immigration was the biggest story last week, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index from June 24-29. It filled 12% of the newshole in PEJ’s Index and was dominant in radio (27% of the airtime) as some conservative talk hosts who led the charge against the bill celebrated.

“The power structure tried to tell you had no power…you were zero, you were people to be laughed at,” radio host Michael Savage told his listeners. “This is your victory.”

Yet for all the politics and passion that marked the immigration debate, the outcome was overshadowed by an event that occurred the following day an ocean away.

The June 29 discovery of two car bombs in densely trafficked parts of London suddenly put the specter of terrorism front and center on the media agenda. The unsuccessful attack caused no casualties and was not on U.S. soil. It occurred on the last day of the week examined in this Index, while the subsequent attack on the Glasgow airport and the arrest of several terror suspects happened too late to be included in this week’s count.

Even so, the UK scare— reflecting terrorism’s power as a newsmaker—finished as the week’s fourth leading story. It filled 5% of the newshole and was the top story on cable at 13%. A more telling reflection of media interest is the fact that on June 29, the foiled plot accounted for 27% of all that day’s news coverage, including 30% of the network news airtime and 63% of the cable news airtime.

In the U.S. media, the story quickly took on American security overtones.

“Let’s be clear,” former UN Ambassador John Bolton asserted on the Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes.” “This kind of terrorist attack, if it’s possible in London, is possible in any major American city. So I think it warrants very close scrutiny.”

CNN’s “Situation Room” aired video of New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly standing next to Mayor Michael Bloomberg as he announced that “we have checkpoints that we’ve instituted…on bridges and some located in Manhattan. We’re checking parking garages…to look for suspicious vehicles.”

The immigration vote and terror plot were just two elements of a crowded news week. Only three percentage points separated the second-biggest story (the 2008 presidential campaign at 6%) from the tenth story (Texas floods at 3%).

In that kind of busy news environment, two events that might have otherwise attracted more attention—professional wrestler Chris Benoit’s apparent family murder/suicide spree and socialite Paris Hilton’s release from jail complete with a professed embrace of God—failed to make the top-10 list.

Five of the top-10 stories were Washington-centric, including the immigration battle, the race for the White House, a major ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court (third-biggest at 6%), controversy surrounding the secretive power and influence of Vice-president Dick Cheney (fifth-biggest at 5%) and the Iraq policy debate (eighth-biggest at 4%). The week’s top story list also included several spot-news events including the fire near Lake Tahoe (sixth-biggest at 5%), the case of murdered Ohio woman Jessie Davis (ninth at 3%), and the Texas floods.

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.)

The biggest news out of the Supreme Court last week was a historic 5-4 ruling against two school desegregation plans that used racial criteria to implement diversity. According to the June 29 Boston Globe account, the decision could have major implications for the public education system, making “hundreds of school-assignment plans across the country, including roughly 20 in Massachusetts, subject to legal challenges.”

One overarching story line as portrayed in the coverage was the top court’s ideological tilt following the relatively recent confirmation of President Bush’s nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

On the June 29 PBS “NewsHour” correspondent Margaret Warner noted that “the Supreme Court term that just ended under Chief Justice John Roberts was marked by key 5-4 decisions that cheered conservatives.” They included the school desegregation ruling, a decision upholding a late-term abortion ban, and the striking down of part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. (Thanks to heavy coverage from the “NewsHour,” the Supreme Court was the leading story, at 13%, in network news.)

Cheney’s emergence as a top-five story last week is due largely to a four-part series in the Washington Post that began on June 24 and examined the tenure of someone the Post called “the most influential man ever to hold the [vice-president’s] office.” The series, which documented Cheney’s unprecedented use of his office to achieve policy and political goals, was seized on by liberal talkers such as radio host Randi Rhodes and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann who have been consistently critical of the vice-president.

The story driving coverage of the Iraq policy debate was the decision of two Republican Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee – Richard Lugar of Indiana and George Voinovich of Ohio—to publicly distance themselves from the President’s strategy in Iraq.

Still, for all the dramatic events of last week, none was covered as intensely as the failed attack in London. And cable viewers were quickly swamped with the familiar, frightening images of the war on terror—swarming law enforcement officials, cordoned off streets and neighborhoods, and briefings from grim-faced public officials.

While the threat of terrorism can recede at times from the media radar screen, even a thwarted event such as one in London quickly refocuses attention on life in the post 9/11 world. The speed and intensity with which that occurs reveals the extent to which, amid debates about Iraq and Iran, the war on terror at home lingers as a kind of simmering worry just beneath the surface.

That led some of the discussions on TV to become almost philosophical.

On his June 29 “Hardball” show, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews complained about how terror concerns had led to the erection of major traffic barriers denying access to the most important buildings in Washington.

“That’s at a high price,” he said. “We’ve shut down our visible democracy here, haven’t we?”

“We’ve not really learned how to be safe and open at the same time,” responded his guest and Washington’s delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ