December 6, 2007

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

Top Newsmakers: Politicians and Criminal Defendants Lead The Way

What do Idaho Senator Larry Craig, former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, and O.J. Simpson have in common?

Aside from having run afoul of the law, they were also among the media’s five leading newsmakers in the third quarter.

In order to be deemed a lead newsmaker in a story, at least 50% of that story has to be about that individual or subject. Thus, while a lead newsmaker may not necessarily be a person who is covered most frequently in the media, he or she he can be the overwhelmingly dominant figure in a story or event that has received a certain level of coverage.

Thus, the top-newsmaker list for the third quarter features a roster of controversial characters including the two former athletes charged with crimes, a scandal-ridden senator, a controversial public official who ultimately resigned, and one sworn enemy of the United States of America.

Four of the quarter’s 10 leading newsmakers were prominent politicians. As the leading newsmaker in 2.9% of the stories, George Bush was No.1, followed by Hillary Clinton (No. 3 at 1.2%), Barack Obama (No. 8 at .6%), and Fred Thompson (No. 10 at .6%). General Petraeus, whose September visit to Capitol Hill caused a near media frenzy, was No. 9 at .6%.

The rest of the leading newsmaker list was made up of some fairly notorious public figures. The second-leading newsmaker was Craig (1.6% of the stories), whose June arrest in the Minneapolis bathroom did not become public knowledge until late August. While his subsequent effort to withdraw his guilty plea failed, Craig defied the expectations and wishes of many of his Republican colleagues by apparently deciding to serve out his term.


In each of the five major media sectors except newspapers, where he finished well down the list, Craig was the second-leading newsmaker behind Bush. He was a particular favorite among liberal radio talk hosts who made him the leading newsmaker (6%) of the quarter.

Vick’s July 17 indictment for his involvement with a dog fighting operation was not one of the biggest stories of the third quarter. It never reached higher than 4% in any given week and for the three-month period, it registered at 1% of the newshole, far out of the top-10 list. But he finished as the fourth leading newsmaker (.9%) of the quarter. And on daytime cable, he even edged out Bush as the leading newsmaker on that platform.

Following right after Vick was another former football star who, for the second time in his life, was facing a serious criminal charge. O.J. Simpson’s Las Vegas arrest for kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon brought back memories of the wall-to-wall cable coverage of his 1995 murder trial. At 13% of the newshole, the Simpson arrest was the leading story for the week of Sept. 16-21, but with the trial off in the future, the saga accounted for only 1% of all the coverage in the quarter. (The only sector in which Simpson was a top-10 story was cable, where he finished eighth at 3%.)

Still, Simpson was the fifth-leading newsmaker at .9%, proving once again his appeal as cable’s favorite celebrity defendant. He was the third-leading newsmaker on cable (1.6%), finishing third on CNN (1.2%), seventh on MSNBC (1.7%) and second on the Fox News Channel (at 1.8%).

The seventh-leading newsmaker of the quarter (at .7%) was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian leader’s late September visit to New York—a trip highlighted by a Columbia University appearance that included an insult-laden introduction by school President Lee Bollinger—helped make U.S.-Iranian tensions the biggest story of the week of Sept. 23-28. On the Today show, Matt Lauer wondered whether the visit was “free speech at work or a dangerous platform for a hate monger.” (By comparison, an even more reviled enemy of the U.S., Osama bin Laden, was the 11th leading newsmaker of the quarter.)

Rounding out the top 10 newsmakers in the third quarter was a controversial national figure, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whose name seemed to rarely appear in media accounts without the prefix “embattled.” Gonzales’s resignation on Aug. 27 became the second-biggest story of that week (at 9%), although it was overshadowed by the news of Larry Craig’s arrest (18%). But it was enough to make him the sixth leading newsmaker for the quarter at .8%.

Gonzales was the key player in a long-running saga that began to emerge as a big story in the media back in March when the firings of U.S. attorneys triggered an investigation into the Attorney General’s office. As was the case with Vick, Gonzales’ resignation this summer was not one of the top 10 stories in the July-September period. But for that quarter, he was the third-leading newsmaker at 4.8% among the liberal radio hosts (behind Bush and Craig), and the second-leading newsmaker (at 1.6%) on the PBS “NewsHour.”