October 1, 2007

The “Tyrant on Tour” Coverage Tops the News

PEJ News Coverage Index Sept. 23 - 28, 2007

If the President of Iran wanted attention last week, he got it.

“Taking New York by storm, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rolls into the Big Apple,” announced Matt Lauer on the Sept. 24 “Today” program. Lest that seem too much like hyping a jet-setting rock star, Lauer cautioned that the important question was whether the visit was “free speech at work or a dangerous platform for a hate monger.”

That indeed seemed to be the theme of the No. 1 story of the week: How to cover someone without aggrandizing him?

For National Public Radio, the answer was to do a story about how the media was doing stories. NPR’s “Morning Edition” reported that Ahmadinejad had “produced screaming headlines in New York’s tabloid newspapers. The New York Post called the Iranian leader a ‘madman.’ The Daily News announced [in a bold headline] ‘THE EVIL HAS LANDED.’”

Another way was for the press to allow everyone, from the famous to the ordinary, to register their level of distaste with Ahmadinejad’s speaking engagement last week at one of the nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning, Columbia University.

“I think it is an outrage against civilization,” declared former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the “Today” story.

“It will be a spectacle,” predicted one college student interviewed on “Today.” “But so is the circus.”

For a few days last week, it was certainly a circus in the press. According to PEJ’s News Coverage Index for Sept. 23-28, the subject of Iran (dominated by Ahmadinejad’s trip) accounted for 13% of all news coverage. Iran finished ahead of the 2008 Presidential race (11%), the bloody anti-government protests in Myanmar (8%), the labor showdown and deal between General Motors and the United Auto Workers (5%) and the situation on the ground in Iraq (5%).

A look at the coverage of Ahmadinejad’s visit by media sector last week suggests that much of the story was driven by opinion and commentary. In the media that typically are more focused on information, Iran was not as big a story. It was the fifth-biggest subject on newspaper front-pages at only 5%. It was the third-biggest story online (at 7%) and on network news (10%).

But the two platforms where Iran and its leader really dominated were cable news (21%) and radio (28%). In those two sectors, which feature talk shows, hosts took the occasion to sound off on everything from the propriety of Columbia President Lee Bollinger’s insult-riddled introduction of Ahmadinejad (calling him “a petty and cruel dictator”) to whether the Iranian President outsmarted his critics simply by showing up.

Coverage dropped off dramatically after Ahmadinejad’s Sept. 24 Columbia and Sept. 25 UN speeches. More than 80% of the stories about Iran last week appeared on those two days. And last week’s outburst continued the irregular and sporadic cycle of news coverage of Iran in a year in which the hostility between Tehran and Washington increased and in which the prospects of military confrontation appears to have grown. (“The Whispers of War” was the Oct. 1 Newsweek headline warning of the possibility of Israel and/or the U.S. attacking Iran to pre-empt its nuclear weapon program.)

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.)

For all the concern about where this confrontation is going, this was only the fifth time Iran made PEJ’s News Coverage Index’s top-five story list this year. Indeed, Iran had not even broken the top-ten story list in the three months before the week of Sept. 16-21, when Ahmadinejad’s pending trip to New York began creating a media buzz and Iran resurfaced as the eighth-biggest story.

What was it Americans then learned about Iran in the coverage? In his speech at Columbia University, Ahmadinejad denied the existence of homosexuality in his country and expressed skepticism about the Holocaust. Most of the coverage focused more on the controversy over the university visit and the outlandish things the Iranian President said than on anything else. There was considerably less coverage of the general situation between U.S. and Iran.

In some media quarters, the whole affair was treated with sarcasm. Jon Stewart’s Comedy Central show played off his UN speech against President Bush’s in a segment labeled “Showdown at the UN Corral,” which included a graphic of both men wearing big 10-gallon cowboy hats.

This was a week in which some of the actual coverage wasn’t much different than that on Comedy Central.

“The Week,” a feisty magazine that offers a compact synopsis of the world’s big events, featured a cover illustration of the smiling Iranian President wearing a New York Yankee hat and eating a Manhattan-style hot dog dripping with condiments. The headline: “Tyrant on tour.”

Liberal radio talker Randi Rhodes, not usually at a loss for words, stumbled a bit in summing up Ahmadinejad, before settling on, “he’s a whackadoodle, he’s bizarre…he’s a psycho.”

The Los Angeles Times Sept. 25 story about the Iranian President’s visit to New York focused largely on demonstrators and protestors, including some who wore Iranian flags, some who carried signs reading “Hitler Lives.”

But for those who got beyond the rhetoric, hype and deafening buzz surrounding Ahmadinejad, there were a few other stories about Iran last week that offered perhaps more about the state of affairs between Tehran and Washington.

On the Sept. 25 edition of CNN’s “Situation Room” anchor Wolf Blitzer reported on the remarks made at the UN by new French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has a considerably more hawkish position on Iran’s development of nuclear weapons than his predecessor. Using “some very, very tough words,” Blitzer noted, the new president warned that a nuclear-armed Iran was an “unacceptable risk” and a serious threat to world peace.

That same night, PBS’s “NewsHour” reported on a Senate resolution asking that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard be labeled a terrorist organization. Republican Senator Jon Kyl saw the move as an effort to reduce Iran’s ability “to directly harm Americans in Iraq.” But anchor Jim Lehrer reported that Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid warned his colleagues about “taking actions that could lead to war with Iran.”

Also that same night, ABC anchor Charles Gibson—with the caption reading “New Front Line”—told viewers that the U.S. was taking the “extraordinary step” of building a new military base in Iraq that is “practically within shouting distance of Iran.” Five miles to be exact.

“The new base is part of a bigger struggle for influence in Iraq between the U.S. and Iran,” said correspondent Terry McCarthy.

Even with those storm clouds gathering, the irresistible story last week was the not so much what is occurring in Iran and what do about it, but the objectionable nature of the Iranian president and whether he should be allowed to speak anywhere other than the U.N.

Given the already heated state of the 2008 presidential race, no coverage would be complete without the candidates weighing in.

Their answers were reported on Brit Hume’s Fox News Channel newscast on Sept. 24. Columbia alum and Democratic hopeful Barack Obama would not have chosen to invite Ahmadinejad to his alma mater, but said “we don’t need to be fearful of the rantings of somebody like Ahmadinejad.” Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton also tried to have it both ways, saying she ventured no opinion on Columbia’s invitation but then added, “If I were the president of a university I would not have invited him.”

Republican Fred Thompson issued a statement that “Columbia gave a public forum to a tyrant to spread his lies and deceit.”

GOP frontrunner Rudy Giuliani similarly declared that “it makes no sense to give him this kind of forum, to give him this kind of dignity.”

With everyone eager to get their two cents in on Ahmadinejad, the media had an easy story to tell about Iran last week. But the trip, and the coverage of it, are now over.

What the candidates might do about Iran if elected is harder to answer, and harder to cover.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: MSNBC aired a presidential debate on the evening of Wednesday, September 26. That time slot was not included in this week's sample.