December 3, 2007

Rock ’em, Sock ’em Republicans Fuel Big Week of Campaign Coverage

PEJ News Coverage Index November 25 - 30, 2007

The way they were reported, some of the post-mortems on the Republicans’ Nov. 28 YouTube/CNN debate might have been more appropriately delivered by tuxedoed ring announcer Michael (“Let’s Get Ready to Rrrrrumble”) Buffer.

“The day after fight night,” declared George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s Nov. 29 newscast. “The Republican debate in St. Petersburg last night was a rumble.”

The Associated Press report carried on Yahoo! News that day followed a similar if familiar theme: “Welcome to fight night.” The story quickly noted that in light of the debate fireworks, it was clear that the GOP contenders had replaced Hillary Clinton with each other as “their preferred punching bag.”

While there’s evidence to suggest that campaign journalists gravitate toward covering the “horse race” aspects of an election, they also appear to have an affinity for the prize fight. And last week—one highlighted by a combative debate featuring an angry opening exchange between Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney—that metaphor proved to be a big one in a big week for campaign coverage dominated by Republicans.

Overall, campaign coverage filled 19% of the newshole as measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index for the week of Nov. 25-30. The story led in all five media sectors and generated the most attention (29%) on cable. The week proved to be the second-biggest one for election coverage in 2007, trailing only the period of Nov. 11-16, when the subject accounted for 21% of the newshole.

The Mideast gathering at Annapolis, the Bush administration’s most ambitious effort at Arab-Israeli peacemaking, was the second-biggest story of the week, at 8%. That was followed by the Nov. 30 hostage standoff, that ended peacefully, at Hillary Clinton’s Rochester New Hampshire campaign office (5%). The fourth-biggest story was the situation in Pakistan (5%) where last week President Pervez Musharraf stepped down as military chief. And news of the U.S. economy, which last week included hints of another interest rate cut, finished fifth at 4%.

With this No. 1 showing, the 2008 campaign continued a run of intense coverage. The subject has registered as the No. 1 story in four of the five weeks from Oct. 28 through Nov. 30. It is noteworthy that the five-week interval began with an Oct. 30 Democratic debate at which Hillary Clinton’s challengers attacked her vigorously, inspiring more pugilistic metaphors in the media. (NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, for example, ventured that Clinton was still “acting tough” after “getting punched around” in that debate.)

Even before the Republican debate in Florida last week, Giuliani and Romney—the former is leading national polls while the latter is doing better in Iowa and New Hampshire—had made news by criticizing each other in increasingly aggressive terms.

With the caption reading “Gloves Off,” NBC’s Nov. 26 nightly newscast reported that the two candidates had “hit each other and hit each other hard” in recent days. After reporting that Giuliani had attacked former Massachusetts Governor Romney on the issue of crime in that state, NBC correspondent David Gregory added that “Romney, eager to exchange blows with Giuliani, fired back.”

That dynamic carried over into the Nov. 28 debate, where the tone was set by a Romney-Giuliani exchange over immigration. Romney accused Giuliani of running a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants when he was mayor of New York. Giuliani responded by accusing Romney of operating a “sanctuary mansion”—a reference to the illegal workers who helped out around the former Massachusetts Governor’s home. The exchange proved irresistible for reporters.

The headline on the front-page New York Times Nov. 29 debate analysis featured even more boxing lingo: “G.O.P. Rivals Exchange Jabs in Testy Debate.”

One other message that came out of that debate—the continuing rise of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee—was prominent in both the Times story and a Los Angeles Times story a day later.

“The debate also reflected a news reality in the Republican race,” the New York Times said. “Mike Huckabee…played a central role, demonstrating how he had come from behind to show strength in several recent polls of Iowa caucus goers.”

“On Thursday, Huckabee savored strong reviews for his performance the previous night in the CNN-YouTube debate at which the former Arkansas Governor delivered one-liners, played up his humble roots and proposed abolishing the IRS in favor of a national sales tax,” added the Los Angeles Time account.

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.)

Thanks in large part to the Florida debate, the Republicans were featured in about twice as many campaign stories as the Democrats last week. That bucks a trend that we have seen for a good portion of the year.

When the coverage did turn to Democrats, one of the big stories was a looming battle of the surrogates.

“It’s a political face-off the likes of which we’ve never seen,” said MSNBC’s Dan Abrams, indulging in what some veterans of politics might consider a bit of hyperbole on his Nov. 27 show. The big news? That former President Bill Clinton, out stumping on the campaign trail for Hillary, may soon cross paths in Iowa with Barack Obama’s marquee supporter, Oprah Winfrey.

In keeping with the fighting mood of the moment, Abrams’ report set up this prospective Clinton-Winfrey showdown on the stump as a boxing match, complete with graphics of boxing gloves and yes, an actual recording of ring announcer Michael Buffer intoning “Let’s Get Ready to Rrrrrumble.”

The former 42nd President made news of a more policy-oriented nature last week when he declared that he had “opposed Iraq from the beginning,” something a number of reports raised doubts about. CBS anchor Katie Couric said flatly, it “doesn’t square with his past statements.” All told, Bill Clinton himself was a subject in more than 25% of the campaign stories last week involving the Democrats.

One other Clinton-related story grabbed the media’s attention last week, the six-hour Nov. 30 hostage standoff at Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire campaign office that ended with no one harmed. (The candidate was not there.) The situation commanded the attention of the cable news networks who went live to the scene, training their cameras on the near-vacant streets around the campaign storefront and hitting up passersby for any possible details. A local man, reported to have been undergoing mental problems, was ultimately arrested.

Although only a one-day event, the drama was the second-biggest cable story of the entire week. It filled 17% of the airtime. For that one day only, on Friday, the standoff consumed a whopping 79% of the cable newshole measured by the PEJ Index, which includes five hours of daily prime and daytime cable coverage.

A ballplayer’s death strikes a nerve

Another crime also gained notice last week. The shooting death of Washington Redskins 24-year-old defensive back Sean Taylor at his Miami home last week was the sixth-biggest story at 4%. The subject generated the most coverage on cable, where it was the No. 3 story at 6%.

It can sometimes be difficult to parse out why one celebrity death generates more media attention than another. (By way of inexact comparison, the death of 73-year-old David Halberstam, an author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist killed in an April car accident, filled only 1% of the newshole when it happened.) Compared to other crimes involving sports figures this past year, the attention to Taylor’s death equaled the highest weekly total in the Michael Vick dog fighting case (4%), but was well behind the 13% of the newshole filled by O.J. Simpson’s September arrest in Las Vegas.

There are a number of factors—the athlete’s youth and skill, the violent means of his death, the criminal investigation into the case, and Taylor’s own troubled past—that may have helped contribute to the extent of the coverage. And in Washington, where Taylor’s death was a huge story, that latter issue generated a controversy of its own.

In her Dec. 2 column, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell addressed reader complaints that two sportswriters at the paper—Michael Wilbon and Leonard Shapiro—had been insensitive or worse by “quickly [bringing] up problematic parts of Taylor’s life.”

“Never speak ill of the dead” wrote Howell in her opening sentence. “This maxim does not exist in the news business.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ