November 12, 2007

Turmoil in Pakistan Grabs the Media’s Attention

PEJ News Coverage Index November 4 - 9, 2007

“It’s Day Four of the nationwide state of emergency with no letup in sight,” declared CNN daytime anchor Don Lemon on Nov. 6 as his newscast relayed the latest details on the crackdown by Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf: Police on the streets confronting protestors, roughly 3,000 lawyers jailed, and the blackout of privately run television channels.

Last week, the crisis triggered by Musharraf’s Nov. 3 declaration of emergency and suspension of the constitution became a media mega-event with several crucial elements. One was the sheer drama of a strategically crucial nation teetering on the brink of chaos. The harsh crackdown by Musharraf, the U.S.’s shaky ally-by-default in the war on terror, also put frustrated American policymakers in a serious bind. And major upheaval in a country that is home to an arsenal of nuclear weapons, and reportedly Osama bin Laden as well, carries some chilling global security risks.

All that helped make the crisis in Pakistan the top story last week in the news last week, filling 17% of the newshole, as measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index from Nov. 4-9. It was the leading story in the newspaper sector (17%), online (27%), and on network TV (21%), and it finished second in cable (11%) and third in radio (8%).

Only the 2008 presidential race, which accounted for 15% of last week’s coverage, came anywhere close to competing with Pakistan for media attention. After that, the third-biggest story was the situation inside Iraq (3%), followed by rising gas and oil prices (3%) and another day in court for cable’s favorite celebrity defendant, O.J. Simpson (3%).

But the trouble in Pakistan was more than just the leading story of the week. With the exception of Iraq, it registered the single-highest level of weekly coverage in 2007 of any global hotspot. (The next highest, 13% of the newshole, was generated when Iran released its 15 British captives in early April and when its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, made his memorable September trip to Columbia University where he was dressed down by the school’s President, Lee Bollinger.)

There may be a number of reasons to explain why few international crises manage to generate a major burst of U.S. media coverage. Critics have variously cited natural American isolationism, the cutting back on foreign bureaus, the failure of U.S. journalists to do international coverage of anything other than war, and more.

Whatever the case, only one other international hotspot has led the weekly News Coverage Index in 2007, or even attracted double digit coverage—Iran. Not North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Myanmar, nor Israel and its immediate neighbors. Among these conflict-ridden locales, the most coverage in any week (9% from June 10-15) was devoted to the fighting between Fatah and Hamas that divided up the Palestinian territories.

Two trouble spots that do tend to make some news fairly often are closely related to the the war on terror. During 2007, tensions between the U.S. and Iran (at 2% of the newshole) constituted the fifth-biggest overall story of the year. It became a top weekly story on three occasions, twice during the British hostage crisis and once during Ahmadinejad’s New York visit.

In Afghanistan—where more than 100 U.S. troops died in 2007 making it the bloodiest year for American forces—the conflict, at just 1%, was not a top-10 story this year. The 2007 high point for coverage of the battle between the U.S. and a reconstituted Taliban was 4% from Feb. 25-March 2 when a bomb attack occurred near visiting Vice President Dick Cheney.

At the time, a front-page New York Times story concluded that the strike near Cheney, “demonstrated that Al Qaeda and the Taliban appear stronger and more emboldened in the region than at any time since the American invasion of the country five years ago.”

PEJ’s News Coverage Index examines the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. (See 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 social and political problems inside Pakistan also grabbed the media’s attention in July, during the violent battle for control over the “Red Mosque” between Islamic militants and Pakistani troops. The biggest week for coverage of the current instability in Pakistan had been Oct. 14-19 when former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s return from exile was greeted with attacks that killed over 100 people. That carnage helped make Pakistan the second-biggest story of that week, at 6%.

But last week, the unrest in Pakistan became a story of another magnitude, attracting nearly three times the coverage of the Bhutto homecoming. Aside from chronicling the extent of the crackdown, a sizeable amount of coverage was devoted to the quandary facing U.S. officials who are upset with Musharraf’s decision even as they apparently see little choice but to support him.

Musharraf’s emergency rule “poses a sharp setback for U.S. efforts to push Pakistan toward democracy, and it calls into question President Bush’s unstinting support for Musharraf despite the general’s growing unpopularity and inability to counter hard-line militants…” the Washington Post reported on Nov. 4.

Two days later, Google News carried this dispatch from Time magazine noting how Musharraf’s decree had left American policy between a rock and a hard place: “Bush’s pro-democracy goals for the country seem as much in conflict as ever with the U.S.’s other goal— to stamp out the Taliban in Afghanistan and dismantle terrorist networks operating inside Pakistan.”

If the choice between backing an ally in the war on terror or standing with Pakistan’s pro-democracy demonstrators was a tough one for the Administration, the potential consequences seemed easier for the media to describe. Some used apocalyptic terms—“chaos,” “nightmare scenario” and “a major new front in the war”—to describe the risks.

Against the backdrop of a video of Osama bin Laden on horseback, CBS anchor Katie Couric warned on Nov. 5: “Pakistan has nuclear bombs and missiles, and some worry that potential chaos there could result in a nightmare scenario in which those weapons fall into the hands of terrorists.”

A CNN report the next night on Anderson Cooper’s show (guest hosted by John King) noted how terrorists had recently re-established a stronger presence in Pakistan. “With the country in crisis,” CNN analyst Peter Bergen said, “the United States fears that a post-Musharraf Pakistan could become dominated by radicals, opening a major new front in the war on terror.”

The administration’s worry, he added, is that “today’s Pakistan will become tomorrow’s pre-9/11 Afghanistan…where Al Qaeda can regroup to plot and prepare future large-scale attacks.”

Thus was the last and most potent ingredient that helps explain why Pakistan was such big news. It is not what had happened, but what might happen, that animated much of the discussion.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: On Wednesday, November 7, CNN aired a special program on professional wrestling. Instead of including that program in this week's sample, we included that evening's episode of Anderson Cooper 360.