One thing was clear last week, the first
time that the 2012 presidential race generated significant coverage. Donald
Trump has emerged as the early winner of the media primary—at least in terms of
coverage and ability to drive the news agenda.
For much of this year, the looming
presidential race has been simmering only in the background of the news. That
is in sharp contrast to 2007, when the race to succeed George Bush was already
a major story at this point in the year. But now, at least for the moment,
things have changed.
For the week of April 18-24, the 2012
presidential race emerged as a big story, more than doubling its previous high
water mark this year. It accounted for 8% of the newshole studied by the Pew
Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, making it the
third-biggest story in the news last week. And a closely related story (at 3%)
involved attention to Obama himself, with a particular focus on the “birther”
movement that questions whether the president was born in the U.S.
In both cases, that was due in large
part to the attention garnered by real estate developer, reality TV star and
now possible presidential candidate Trump—who has embraced the birther issue
and become the rising star of the GOP presidential field.
Indeed, Trump was the week’s second
leading newsmaker behind Obama, registering as a dominant figure in 4% of all the
week’s stories. That is six times more attention than the next most-covered
potential GOP contender, Sarah Palin, generated last week.
The week’s No. 1 story, at 15%, was the
continued unrest and violence in the Mideast, primarily in Libya. Coverage was
up from 10% the previous week, fueled by several significant developments in
the Libyan war including the deaths of two journalists and a modification of
the U.S. military role with the introduction of Predator drone strikes.
Coverage of the economy, 14%, was once again
driven by concern about the government’s financial health, which included an
ominous warning from the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s. After two weeks
atop the news agenda, economic-related coverage plunged dramatically from the
previous week (39%), when Obama rolled out his deficit plan.
A story with a direct impact on the
economy, the continued rise of gas prices, was the No. 5 subject (3% of the
newshole) as the average cost per gallon at the pump reached $3.85.
April 20 also marked one year since the
BP Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and triggered a massive environmental
disaster. Last week, coverage of that anniversary was the fourth-biggest story,
at 6% of the newshole. And some of the media updates on the situation were not
For a number of reasons, including that
fact that there is an incumbent seeking re-election, coverage of the 2012
presidential campaign has gotten off to a slower start than the 2008 race. (So
far this year, it has accounted for only 2% of the newshole compared with 7% at
the same point four years ago.)
But that began to change last week as
the race took root in the cable news sector, which is most attuned to politics
and partisan controversy. (The campaign was the No. 1 story in cable last week,
filling 19% of the airtime studied. In stark contrast, it accounted for only 2%
of the front-page newspaper coverage examined by PEJ.)
There were several news-making developments
last week, including the entry of long shot libertarian-leaning Gary Johnson,
the former governor of New Mexico, into the Republican race. And there was a
drop in Obama’s approval ratings that got some attention.
But the real attraction was Trump, who
has jumped to the top of some GOP polls with a campaign that has thus far
focused on Obama’s birthplace and blunt talk about getting tough with China and
seizing Middle Eastern oil fields. If Trump’s sweeping policy positions and
birther mantra are raising eyebrows about his seriousness as a candidate, the
media last week seemed primarily respectful of his ability to so quickly inject
himself into the race.
On ABC’s April 18 newscast, anchor Diane
Sawyer discussed “the insurgent presidential rumbling from Donald Trump” and
cited a poll showing him leading the Republican field with 26% support. In the
same report, Good Morning America anchor George Stephanopoulos previewed an
interview with Trump in which he advocated seizing Iraqi oil fields by force.
“In the old days…when you had a war, to
the victor belongs the spoils,” Trump asserted. “You go in, you win the war and
you take it.”
Two nights later, conservative Fox News
host Bill O’Reilly described Trump as “a smart guy, he's an impatient man, and he doesn't much care
what anybody thinks about him…In the primary debates, Donald Trump would steal
the show and little would be off the table.” At the same time, O’Reilly opined that
“a Trump candidacy would help Barack Obama because it would divide the
Republican Party. That is, unless Mr. Trump wins the primary battle. Then Mr.
Obama might have a huge problem.”
Another 3% of last week’s coverage was devoted to the president
and his administration, and the birther issue took center stage. In Arizona,
Republican Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have, among other
things, forced presidential candidates to produce a birth certificate or other
pieces of evidence to qualify for the state’s ballot. Another GOP governor,
Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, said he would sign a similar bill in his state.
While many media analyses indicate that Republicans could be
hurt with independent voters if they are too closely identified with birther
claims, it is Trump who is seen as having revived the issue in the campaign. The
claim that Obama was not born in the U.S. has been refuted by the president’s
Certificate of Live Birth document and the fact that Honolulu’s major newspapers
carried announcements of Obama’s birth in August 1961. Last week, potential GOP
presidential hopeful Michelle Bachmann—who had previously suggested that
candidates should produce their birth certificates—appeared to agree that Obama
was U.S.-born after ABC’s George Stephanopoulos showed her his Certificate of
On April 18, Chris Matthews, one of the hosts in MSNBC’s liberal
prime-time lineup, took Trump to task for just that. Trump is accusing
Obama of being a “fraud from day one,” Matthews said. “He says nobody knew
him at school, like he was some impostor and never went to those schools.
He said he never really got into the schools in the Ivy League he got into… He
says the guy is a confection, a nonexistent figure. He’s suggesting that
Barack Obama doesn‘t really exist as we know him.”
The turmoil in the Middle East had something of a comeback in
the media last week. The story registered its highest level of coverage in
three weeks. It generated the most attention, 23%, in the online news sector,
which week after week is usually more internationally oriented than any other
part of the media culture in its agenda.
Several major events drove the coverage in Libya, including the
deaths of Western photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, who were
killed in the battle-torn Libyan city of Misrata. The introduction of Predator
drone strikes—targeted at troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi—also made news as did
a visit to Libya by Senator John McCain, who, according to an Associated Press
account, described the Libyan rebels as “my heroes.”
With a significant uptick in violence last week as Syrian
security forces reportedly killed scores of anti-government protestors, that
nation’s crisis accounted for the bulk of last week’s Mideast coverage that was
not devoted to Libya.
Even as coverage plunged last week, the U.S. economy was still
the No. 1 story in two sectors—newspapers (17%) and radio (19%). And more than
half the economic coverage was about the debt and deficit, including the news
that President Obama and Republican Congressman Paul Ryan—who have unveiled
competing and very different proposals—took to the road last week to sell their
One significant piece of worrisome news was this warning about
U.S. debt. “On
Monday, the ratings firm Standard & Poor's lowered its outlook on the
United States rating to negative. Although the agency did not actually lower
its highest AAA rating on the country's debt, it was the first time since [it] started
assigning outlooks in 1989 that the country was given an outlook that was
something other than stable,” a New York Times story reported April 19.
Spiking gas prices captured the media’s attention as well last week as some
reports suggested the pain at the pump was having an impact on Obama’s political
fortunes—something the president acknowledged at a fundraiser.
“Imagine intersecting lines on a chart: gasoline prices going up,
presidential approval ratings going down,” noted a Christian Science Monitor
story on April 23. “It’s a reality for Obama, and he knows it.”
In the spring and early summer of 2010,
the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was easily the dominant story in the U.S.
mainstream media, accounting for 22% of the newshole in the first 100 days
after the April 20 accident. (The U.S. economy was next, well back at 12%).
Last week’s coverage of the anniversary
was relatively modest (6%). The subject generated the most attention in the
newspaper section (10% of front-page news.) On CNN—the cable channel that devoted
the most coverage to the story last year—last week’s progress report, so to
speak, was not particularly comforting.
“Some beaches are suffering
from chronic re-oiling, that's oil that washes back onto the shore,” said
anchor/correspondent Soledad O’Brien. “And many Gulf businesses are still
feeling it…So far, BP has paid out $4 billion of that $20 billion pledged [to
aid Gulf residents]. But…there are plenty of complaints about no payments, slow
payments, or as in [one] woman's case, low payments, only 10 percent of what
she says she's due.”
Newsmakers of the Week
From April 18-24, Barack
Obama was the leading figure in the news, registering as a dominant newsmaker
in 8% of the week’s stories. That is, however, down significantly from the
previous week (13%) when the president’s deficit reduction plan drove much of the
narrative. (To be considered a dominant newsmaker, someone must be featured in
at least 50% of a story.)
Donald Trump was the No. 2
newsmaker, at 4%, followed by slain photojournalist Tim Hetherington (2%), who
also co-directed Restrepo, the Oscar-nominated documentary about the
newsmaker, at 1%, was scandal-plagued Senator John Ensign (R-NV), who announced
he was resigning his seat last week. Close behind him, also at 1%, were Senator
John McCain, who generated coverage for his visit to Libya and Michelle Obama.
The First Lady made headlines after it was revealed that a plane she was
traveling in came closer than it should have to a military jet.
About the NCI
PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index
examines the news agenda of 52 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 1,000 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 who account for at least 50% of a given story.
Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ