July 9, 2007

The “Doctors’ Plot” is Number One

PEJ News Coverage Index July 1 - 6, 2007

The U.K. terror plot that hit the headlines June 29 with the discovery of two undetonated car bombs in London took a strange and disturbing turn last week.

One day later, attackers drove a vehicle into the Glasgow airport terminal, triggering a panicky, fiery scene, convincing British authorities to raise the alert level to “critical” and generating stepped-up security in the United States. Then the unusual nature of the plot—and the plotters—began to unfold.

“Shocking revelations that doctors were at the heart of that British terror plot,” declared Katie Couric on CBS’s July 2 newscast. The next morning, while reporting that six suspects in the case were doctors or medical students, ABC’s “Good Morning America” hammered away at the theme of “professional healers who were apparently determined to kill.”

“It’s a very disturbing development morally and practically,” asserted ABC’s Terry Moran. “Doctors are trusted all over the world.”

On the July 4 “Today” program, NBC correspondent Lisa Myers reported that “the British government now is looking at how to tighten scrutiny of foreign doctors who come here to practice medicine.”

By the end of the week, there was an alarming, if tenuous, American connection to the saga. Anchoring a July 6 ABC radio newscast, Charles Gibson noted that “months before their unsuccessful attempt to bomb the entertainment district in London and the airport in Glasgow, some of the terror suspects were thinking about coming to the U.S.” The FBI confirmed that two of the suspects had contacted an agency about practicing medicine in this country.

The London and Glasgow terror attacks failed to inflict serious casualties, and the Fourth of July passed without incident in the United States. But what Terry Moran called “the doctors’ plot” (ABC ran the caption “Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde” during his report) was enough of a man-bites-dog story to lead the coverage last week. According to PEJ’s News Coverage Index, the subject filled 14% of the newshole in the period from July 1-6. It was also the No. 1 story in the newspaper (12%), online (22%) and network news (19%) sectors. (The previous week, it had been the fourth-biggest story at 5%. But only the June 29 discovery of the two car bombs occurred early enough to be counted in that Index.)

The political firestorm that erupted over President Bush’s July 2 commutation of Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s 30-month sentence in the Valerie Plame case was the second-biggest story last week (at 11%). And the 2008 Presidential race was punctuated by one of those yardsticks that attracts plenty of media attention, even if it may be a forgotten statistic when the votes come start to come in months from now. Driven by the release of second-quarter 2007 fundraising numbers, the campaign was third last week, generating 8% of the overall coverage.

The immigration debate—the lead story at 12% in last week’s Index—slipped to fourth (4%) as the fallout from the bill’s June 28 demise waned. The fifth-biggest story (at 3%) was a potpourri of July Fourth-related events that included fireworks accidents and a three cent rise in the cost of beer. Not included was the big upset at the July 4 Coney Island hot dog-eating contest where American Joey Chestnut devoured 66 dogs in 12 minutes to beat the previously invincible Japanese champ Takeru Kobayashi. That stunning display of epicurean athleticism attracted only a minimal amount of coverage.

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 President’s decision to commute “Scooter” Libby’s sentence for obstruction of justice and perjury in the case involving the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame did not generate quite as much coverage as Libby’s conviction in early March. (The conviction was the top story that week at 13%.) But the President’s action did ignite a heated debate in political and media circles. It was the top story last week in the two media sectors (cable news at 20% and radio at 11%) that are home to the talk shows.

On the July 5 edition of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” host Chris Matthews aired a heavyweight battle of sound bites. Interviewed on a radio program, former President Bill Clinton—whose 1998 impeachment was based on charges of obstruction and perjury—lashed out at the Bush administration. “They believe that they should be able to do what they want to do and the law is a minor obstacle,” he said.

White House spokesman Tony Snow responded partly in Yiddish by asserting that “I don’t know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it.”

On the same night on the Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes” commentators Mark Steyn and Juan Williams got into a high-decibel debate on the subject. Supporting the President’s decision, Steyn said that “what’s at issue here” in the Libby conviction “is the criminalization of politics.”

Williams, a critic of the move, responded that the case was “not about disagreeing…it’s about managing and manipulating intelligence” in the run-up to the Iraq war.

The other big political story last week, the 2008 presidential campaign, was fueled by the fundraising numbers. The news was good for Democratic hopeful Barack Obama, who collected more than $32 million in the quarter, outraising Hillary Clinton and setting a new fundraising record for Democrats. The news was grim for Republican contender John McCain, who raised slightly more than $11 million and began cutting staff.

For McCain, once the presumed GOP favorite whose campaign has staggered early, the numbers seemed to fit the media narrative for him thus far.

Thus, this first paragraph in the New York Times July 3 page-one story: “The presidential campaign of Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who once seemed poised to be his party’s nominee in 2008, acknowledged yesterday that it was in a political and financial crisis as a drop in fund-raising forced it to dismiss dozens of workers and aides and retool its strategy on where to compete.”

Some observers have speculated that McCain—perhaps the most vocal supporter of the Iraq troop buildup among the presidential hopefuls—could benefit from a respite from bad news about the war. And though Iraq has not vanished from the headlines, coverage of the war—and particularly the debate over strategy—has recently tailed off.

Last week events on the ground in Iraq amounted to the sixth-biggest story (3%) followed immediately by the policy debate (also 3%). This marks the sixth week in a row that the argument over Iraq strategy failed to make the Index’s roster of top-five stories. That can be traced back to the May 24 Congressional votes to fund the war without withdrawal timetables, an event that was seen at the time as a major victory for President Bush. That stands in stark contrast to the first three months of the year when the policy debate dominated the news agenda.

Last week, even veteran Republican Senator Pete Domenici’s decision to break with Bush over Iraq—a move that mirrors recent statements by GOP Senators Richard Lugar and George Voinovich—failed to move the policy debate up past seventh place in the Index.

Yet, with all sides gearing up for a potentially decisive showdown over the war that could start with this month’s interim progress report on the conflict, the Washington-based battle over Iraq may once again command the media’s singular attention.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: Because of the July 4 holiday, no editions of the Wall Street Journal or USA Today, or any of MSNBC's regular programming were available for inlcusion on that day. In addition, the 5 pm radio headlines from ABC news radio and CBS news radio on Tuesday, July 3rd, were not included in this week's sample due to a technical error.