July 23, 2007

Senate Slumber Party Wakes Up News Media

PEJ News Coverage Index July 15 - 20, 2007

National Public Radio correspondent David Welna harkened back to his student days to describe the all-night Senate debate on Iraq that began on July 17.

“More than anything, it reminded me of a class being put in all-night detention in school,” he said, “with Majority Leader Harry Reid taking attendance every two hours.”

In an AP story posted on Yahoo News July 18, Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma issued this challenge to his Democratic colleagues across the aisle: “I bet I can stay up longer than they can.” Meanwhile, two presidential hopefuls used to talking in front of large audiences —Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton—found themselves with speaking slots around 4 a.m.

The unusual session was called by Democrats to highlight differences among the parties over an Iraq exit strategy. The long parade of speeches ended when the forces that wanted to impose a troop withdrawal timetable on President Bush, mostly Democrats, fell eight votes short of ending debate and passing the measure.

The event, derided as a cheap political stunt by some and as a way to pressure a change in Iraq policy by others, was a success by one metric—the level of press coverage. But what kind of coverage was it? In general, the media treated the event with uneasy mix of bemusement and solemnity. ABC’s July 18 newscast for example, included footage of numerous boxes of pizza being wheeled into the Capitol while quoting Reid and Republican Senator Trent Lott attacking their opponents in the starkest terms. (Thanks to aggressive reporting, we learned Reid doesn’t even like pizza.)

No outlet, however, dismissed the political theater from both sides as self-aggrandizing nonsense as much as Comedy Central’s “Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

In a soupy British accent and bursting with outrage, the show’s “political theater critic” John “Olivier” bellowed that “In my entire career of watching political theater, never have I slogged through a more execrable production than last night’s withdrawal debate…It’s really just a flabby rehash of 1971’s repeal of Tonkin Gulf Resolution.”

By the numbers, the Iraq policy debate was the top news story of the week, filling 14% of the newshole in PEJ’s News Coverage Index for July 15-20. (It was the top story in the newspaper (10%), network (19%), and radio (17%) sectors.)

That meant that whatever one thought of the Democrats’ maneuver, this was the second week in a row that the argument over the efficacy of U.S. policy in Iraq was the leading story in the news. That recent comeback has occurred after media coverage of the Iraq debate had diminished noticeably following the May 24 Congressional vote funding the war without including withdrawal timetables.

The second biggest story last week, at 9% of the newshole in PEJ’s News Index, was the 2008 presidential race. It was the top subject in cable news (19%). Those numbers can be attributed, in part, to CNN’s extensive pre-event coverage (or promotion) of the July 23 YouTube debate for Democratic candidates that is being co-hosted by the cable network.

Two warning signs in the war on terror also made the top-five story list last week.

The release of an intelligence report sounding alarm bells about a reconstituted Al-Qaeda threat helped make domestic terrorism the third-biggest topic at 6%. And news of growing instability in Pakistan—a nation that is a nominal U.S. ally, but is also home to growing Islamic radicalism and perhaps the core Al-Qaeda leadership—was the fifth-biggest story at 3%. Sandwiched in between, in the #4 position, was the continued violence inside Iraq (6% of the overall newshole, but the top online story at 13%.)

Thus, if all the Iraq and terror stories were combined, including the instability in Pakistan, about 30% of the newshole last week was made up of coverage of the war on terror in its various permutations.

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.)

Although Iraq debate coverage was initially fueled by the Senate all-nighter, by the end of the last week the focus had shifted to July 19 briefings of Congress by the two leading Americans on the ground in Iraq, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. The take-away moment from that exchange for the media appeared to be Crocker’s remark to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “if there is one word, I would use to sum up the atmosphere in Iraq on the streets, in the countryside, in the neighborhoods and at the national level, that word would be ‘fear.’”

Fear might have also been the operative word to describe the theme of the new National Intelligence Estimate assessing the threat posed by of Al-Qaeda six years after 9/11. In a report on PBS’s “NewsHour,” correspondent Margaret Warner summed up those findings by stating that “the terrorist network has regenerated key elements of its ability to attack the United States and is intensifying its efforts to put operatives here.”

One conclusion in that report is that Al-Qaeda has also re-established a safe haven in Pakistan. That provided a context for another event—the violence (dozens died in several suicide attacks) and political instability that threatens President Pervez Musharraf’s regime in Pakistan—to become a major story last week.

In a grim reminder of what’s at stake for the U.S., former State Department official Richard Haas told Brian Williams on NBC’s July 20 newscast that “there’s a lot of ways in which Pakistan could become a nightmare for us.” Not only would the demise of the reasonably friendly Musharraf government have implications for the war on terror, said Haas, it would raise the frightening specter of “the loss of…central government control” over Pakistan’s arsenal of nuclear weapons.

As for Musharraf’s future, Haas flatly predicted that “the time’s about up.”

There are still about 15 months before the U.S. selects its next president, but the campaign debate season is already in full swing, at least in the media’s coverage. And last week, the YouTube-CNN debate—a new media hybrid that allows citizens to pose questions to candidates via homemade videos—was a major part of the reportage. About 40% of all the stories about the 2008 campaign last week was generated by CNN and almost half of those hyped the July 23 YouTube debate.

Last week, YouTube was also making news for another innovation that has elbowed its way into campaign coverage—the music video in which half-dressed young women declare their rather impolitic affection for a candidate. It started with the “I got a crush on Obama” performed by Obama Girl and was just followed up by another video in which a group of fervent Rudy Giuliani admirers strut their stuff in a showdown with Obama’s smoldering mamas.

In a story on this phenomenon that aired on ABC’s “Good Morning America” last week, correspondent Jake Tapper wondered about what may be an increasingly relevant question in this election season.

“Surely, the campaign will not be decided by scantily clad models holding a pillow fight. Right?”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ