December 7, 2009

Afghanistan Dominates While Two Scandals Fascinate

PEJ News Coverage Index November 30-December 6, 2009

In a week when Barack Obama announced a decision destined to have a critical influence on his presidency, his plan for the conflict in Afghanistan dominated the news.

From November 30-December 6, Afghanistan accounted for 27% of the newshole, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. That was the largest amount of attention the media have devoted to the war there since the PEJ began monitoring the news in January 2007.

The catalyst was the President’s December 1 speech at West Point when he ordered a surge of 30,000 more troops to the battle zone and outlined a timetable for withdrawal—decisions that generated some criticism from the ranks of both hawks and doves. And it marks a growing rise in coverage of the conflict. For most of the last three years the fighting in Afghanistan had attracted minimal media attention. But starting late summer, that coverage spiked markedly with much of the focus on the lengthy and leaky Obama strategy review.  Before last week, the previous high water mark (20%) occurred from Oct. 5-11, when news of policy disagreements inside the administration drove the narrative.

The No. 2 story (14%) last week was the economy. Early in the week, coverage was fueled by a White House jobs summit amid concerns about lingering high unemployment. But on Friday, those fears were allayed somewhat by news of an unexpected drop in the jobless rate.

Two tales seemingly ripped from the pages of supermarket tabloids were next on the list of top stories. What began as a one-car accident a few hours after Thanksgiving morphed into a full blown scandal (6% of the newshole) as golf superstar and marketing icon Tiger Woods found himself besieged with tales of multiple mistresses, steamy text messages and re-negotiated pre-nups.

And also at 6%, was the bizarre story of the Salahis, the Virginia couple who managed to get inside the November 24 State Dinner at the White House. Last week, that episode moved to the forefront of Washington politics and partisanship as Congress held hearings on the security breach and the White House faced off with some lawmakers over a possible subpoena of social secretary Desiree Rogers.

The fifth-biggest story had been the leading domestic policy news topic in recent months. But with the Senate still wrangling over legislation, the health care debate filled only 5% of the newshole last week, generating less attention than the Woods and Salahi sagas.

The decision on Afghanistan

Afghanistan thoroughly dominated the news agenda last week, registering as the top story in all five media sectors, generating the most attention on cable (33% of the airtime studied) and network news (31%). Last week marked only the second time the subject had been the No. 1 story since the NCI began in 2007. But as we found in coverage of Iraq as well, the story is bigger when it is a domestic political story more than one about combat. Last week, about 90% of the coverage was focused on U.S. strategy for the eight-year-old conflict.

The galvanizing event was Obama’s speech, one delivered after months of meetings and deliberations that provoked accusations from some critics that the President was taking too long to decide on options ranging from major escalation to a more limited approach aimed primarily at targeting terrorists.

Many of the media post-mortems focused on what one newspaper headline called an “Escalation, Exit” strategy—his decision to pour 30,000 troops into Afghanistan and announce a timetable for withdrawal to begin in 2011. Columnist E.J. Dionne dubbed it a “Goldilocks strategy: neither too hawkish nor too dovish…” The New York Times declared that Obama “used language intended to appeal to different parts of the spectrum, at times echoing former President George W. Bush in reasserting America’s moral authority in the world while repudiating what he sees as the mistakes of the Bush years and insisting that ‘America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.’”

In the aftermath of the speech, skeptics emerged in the media narrative from both the left and right. Arizona Senator John McCain told CBS’s Katie Couric that he supported the troop surge, but disagreed with “an arbitrary date for withdrawal,” warning that “it emboldens our enemies and dispirits our friends.”

Conversely, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman told CNN’s Campbell Brown that although the troop escalation was a “hard call,” he thought the country’s domestic needs were more pressing: “We have to make choices…and I think our country’s priority right now has to be nation-building at home. We can’t play the role that we need to play in the world without strengthening our economy, our education system, our innovation capacity.”

By the end of the week, a CNN/Opinion Research poll did offer some good news for Obama, at least in terms of convincing Americans of the wisdom of the escalation. The survey found that 63% thought the war in Afghanistan was morally justified and 64% accepted the President’s argument that U.S. security is at stake there.

Tiger Woods in the Rough

The metastasizing Tiger Woods scandal accounted for 6% of the weekly coverage and was most popular on the broadcast network morning shows, where it accounted for 18% of the airtime studied.

But even that level of attention understates the degree to which the story was fevered fodder for such celebrity-centric media outlets as the New York tabloids and TMZ.com. The more Woods refused to speak to the press—he offered only a terse statement on his website—the more stories and speculation mounted at a dizzying pace. By week’s end, the number of alleged Woods mistresses in some press accounts was inching up toward double digits.

Arguably, the biggest, and perhaps most damaging of these leaks was the release of a voice mail by a woman named Jaimee Grubbs in which a man purported to be Woods asked her to “please take your name off my phone. My wife went through my phone and may uh, may be calling you.”

In a media world where outlets striving to hold audiences often gravitate to stories with celebrity built in, the Woods story quickly moved into the mainstream press despite its tabloid dimensions. 

“The golf titan may be learning that even if he stays silent in this storm, the women may not,” offered Diane Sawyer on the December 3 edition of ABC’s Good Morning America.

Given the challenge of sorting out rumor from fact, and the salacious nature of the story, much of the media attention focused on a supposedly more respectable, albeit highly speculative aspect—the impact it could have on Woods’ previously unassailable reputation and his role as a high-powered pitchman.

“According to all the ads [made by Woods], this was never supposed to happen,” noted ABC correspondent John Berman. “Tiger Woods presented the image of the perfect life with near perfect discipline.”

Sportswriter John Feinstein wrote that although Woods’ off-the-course career might survive the scandal, “the taint won’t go away any more than the stain on Monica Lewinsky’s dress disappeared from Bill Clinton’s legacy.”

Guess Who’s Coming to the State Dinner

Meanwhile, the bizarre story of the couple who infiltrated the Obama State dinner gained real momentum last week as well, providing numerous angles that seemed to range from the amused to the alarmed. Like the Woods tale, the subject generated the most attention on morning network news (18% of the airtime studied), where it often had more to do with the couple than the White House.

Michaele and Tareq Salahi may have been hoping for a spot on the reality show “Real Housewives of D.C.,” but much of the media attention lavished on them last week was probably unwanted. The New York Daily News, for example, editorialized that the “the next photos posted of these vacant, hollow, smug nothings must be mug shots.” Even Access Hollywood had a supposed expert watch their interview on the Today show who concluded that their body language suggested they were lying while claiming to believe they were invited.

The Associated Press worked another angle of the story, noting that in this age of instant communication, party crashing is becoming increasingly popular. “Event planners will tell you that party crashing is a time-honored tradition,” the story noted. “And a flourishing one, thanks partly to the way news of exclusive events gets out these days,” which includes people blogging and tweeting from parties.

Toward the end of the week, the issue took on a classic Washington political tilt as the White House declined to make social secretary Desiree Rogers available to the Congressional committee investigating the episode. The administration invoked the separation of powers, but on NBC’s Today, a clearly annoyed Republican Congressman Peter King, asked, “Why wouldn’t [Rogers] come up and testify…it’s the security of the President of the United States.” And a soap opera, too.

The Economy and Health Care

Amid war, sex and party crashing, the state of the U.S. economy was the second-biggest story last week, accounting for 14% of the overall newshole. Coverage spiked dramatically in the last few days of the week (24% of the newshole from December 4-6) after some surprisingly upbeat job   numbers were released.

“U.S. employers cut only 11,000 jobs last month, the best showing in nearly two years, and the jobless rate edged down to 10 percent, a strong suggestion the jobs market was edging toward health,” stated a Reuters story. “Analysts polled by Reuters had expected non-farm payrolls to drop 130,000 last month and the unemployment rate to hold steady at a 26-1/2 year high of 10.2 percent…The data will take some pressure off President Barack Obama, a day after he appealed to the corporate sector, at a jobs summit he hosted, to join in the administration’s employment creation efforts.”

And with no significant breakthroughs in the legislative maneuvering, the health care debate accounted for only 5% of the week’s news. Some of that coverage was of a report from the Congressional Budget Office concluding that the Senate bill, according to the Washington Post, “would leave premiums unchanged or slightly lower for the vast majority of Americans, contradicting assertions by the insurance industry that the average family’s coverage would rise by thousands of dollars if the proposal became law.”

Even given that report, the media last week continued to depict the Senate skirmishing over reform legislation as a difficult and daunting process with a very uncertain outcome.

Newsmakers of the Week

With his Afghanistan speech the defining news event of the week, Barack Obama was the top headline generator from November 30-December 6, appearing as a lead newsmaker in 10% of the week’s stories. (To register as a lead newsmaker, a figure has to appear in at least 50% of a story.) That is a fairly typical number for this president.

The second leading newsmaker would have surely preferred that it was not so. Last week, Tiger Woods, who remained out of the range of cameras and the media, still registered in 6% of the stories.

The next two newsmakers were principals in major crime stories. Maurice Clemmons, the convict who was fatally wounded after he shot and killed four police officers in a Seattle-area coffee shop, was No. 3, at 4% of the coverage. Next (3%) was Amanda Knox, the young woman convicted of murdering her roommate as part of a violent sex game after a highly publicized trial in Italy.

Tied, fittingly enough, for the No. 5 newsmaker spot (2%) were the surprise White House visitors, Michaele and Tareq Salahi.

About the NCI

PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index examines the news agenda of 55 different outlets from five sectors of the media: print, online, network TV, cable and radio. (See List of Outlets.) The weekly study, which includes some 1,300 stories, is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of that media narrative and differences among news platforms. The percentages are based on "newshole," or the space devoted to each subject in print and online and time on radio and TV. (See Our Methodology.) In addition, these reports also include a rundown of the week’s leading newsmakers, a designation given to people or institutions who account for at least 50% of a given story.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ