December 6, 2007

Terrorism, Tight Credit, and Tragedies Emerge in the News in Third Quarter

The Craig Scandal

It was the last week in August when the media first learned of Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig’s June arrest for allegedly propositioning a police officer in the Minneapolis airport. In the weeks that followed, Craig agreed to resign from the Senate, changed his mind, and tried to rescind his guilty plea.

By the time September ended, the scandal had become the eighth-biggest story of the quarter, filling 2% of the overall newshole in PEJ’s news index. (Steady coverage of the Craig saga continued well into October, the beginning of the fourth quarter.) Craig’s contention that he was innocent, as well as his deliberations over whether to serve out his second term, provided two major weeks of news coverage.

On the political scandal spectrum for the first nine months of the year, Craig’s saga fit somewhere between the problems that beset former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the case of Louisiana’s Republican Senator, David Vitter, whose phone number was found in the “D.C. Madam’s” records.

From January through September, the Gonzales-related scandals took up slightly more than 2% of the overall newshole and registered as the sixth-biggest story of the year. Over the same nine-month period, Craig’s arrest accounts for about 1% of the newshole, which put it well ahead of the D.C. escort scandal involving Vitter, which registered only at about one-tenth of 1%.

But for intensity, at its peak the Craig scandal was a major newsmaker. The first week the news broke, Aug. 26-31, the Craig story was easily the top subject, filling 18% of the overall newshole. The Senator’s predicament that week generated twice the coverage of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ Aug. 27 resignation. (And that 18% matches the highest level of weekly coverage generated by U.S. attorneys scandal—with Gonzales as the key player—which broke back in March 2007.)

The sex scandal, involving allegations of homosexuality and a conservative Republican Senator, generated the most coverage in the two media sectors—cable news and radio—that include the ideological talk shows. In the first two weeks of the story, it accounted for almost one quarter of all the airtime on cable (23%) and radio (22%).

For the entire quarter, the Craig story was the third-biggest topic (5%) on talk radio and on prime time cable (4%), behind only the campaign and the Iraq policy debate.

Following the rule evident so far in talk radio—that it is better to attack the enemy than defend the ally—liberal radio talkers devoted almost twice as much time (8%) to the subject than the conservative hosts (4%). Similarly, MSNBC’s prime-time lineup made Craig’s travails the third biggest story, (at 7%) while it was the eighth-biggest story (at 3%) among Fox’s hosts. CNN was somewhere in the middle (sixth-biggest story at 4%).