A run of gloomy news—more partisan disagreement on
raising the debt ceiling, rising unemployment numbers and continued housing
woes—drove the economy to the forefront of the media agenda last week.
As the recovery appeared to falter, the U.S. economy
accounted for 19% of the newshole during the week of May 30-June 5, according
to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. That
represented the biggest week for economic coverage since April 11-17, when the narrowly
averted government shutdown helped to make that subject the focus of 39% of the
The growing sense that the economic recovery has stalled invited
the media to weigh the impact on President Obama, with analysts noting that his
reelection prospects were not helped by last week’s news.
The week’s No. 2 story was a related subject—the 2012
presidential election—that has slowly but steadily crept to the fore of the
mainstream media agenda. Last week, attention to the race—mostly focusing on
the emerging and potential crop of Republican candidates—accounted for 12% of
the newshole, its biggest week of coverage yet.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney generated
substantial attention with his long-expected entrance into the race on June 2.
(He was the No. 2 lead newsmaker last week, the focus of 4% of all stories
studied by PEJ). Another former governor—the undeclared Sarah Palin—generated
considerable coverage as she launched a bus tour of some of the nation’s famous
historical sites that had the media fervently chasing her. Palin was the No. 3
newsmaker, also at 4%. (In order to register as a dominant newsmaker, a person
must be featured in at least 50% of a story).
The lurid side of American politics was also on display
as the media focused on two scandals last week. The No. 4 story (4%) involved
the indictment of former vice presidential nominee John Edwards on charges that
he misused campaign funds to conceal an affair with his mistress.
At No. 5 (also 4%) was the appearance of a revealing image on the Twitter
account of New York Rep. Anthony Weiner—a scandal that lingered when the
congressman could not say with certitude that the photo was not of him. (On
June 6, Weiner admitted the photo was of him and said that he had inappropriate
communications with a half dozen women).
Turmoil in the Middle East surfaced again among the top
stories last week as violence in Yemen and the departure of that country’s
president to Saudi Arabia sparked concerns of all-out civil war. That topic was
the No. 3 story, at 9% of the newshole.
And one week after the deadly tornado that devastated
Joplin, Missouri was the No. 1 story, bad weather continued to make news last
week. That aftermath of the Joplin disaster filled 3% of the newshole, while additional
flooding and tornadoes—including one that killed several in Springfield,
Massachusetts—accounted for another 2%.
A Stalled Recovery with Political
The media’s mood about the state of the economy darkened
last week, as disappointing employment numbers added to an already gloomy
report on the housing sector.
“The economy clearly just hit a brick wall” said
economist Paul Ashworth, quoted in a New York Times June 3 piece about hiring
numbers. The Labor Department on Friday reported that only 54,000 jobs had been
added, about a third of what economists had been expecting. It was also
reported that the unemployment rate went up to 9.1% in May. The news wasn’t any better on the housing
front. “The double-dip that everyone was worried about is here, with home
prices falling to their lowest level in nine years,” reported a sober George Stephanopoulos
on the June 1 edition of ABC’s Good Morning America.
Meanwhile, the media continued to cover the partisan
conflict on Capitol Hill about raising the nation’s debt ceiling. Last week
Republican lawmakers introduced a measure to raise the debt ceiling only to
overwhelmingly vote it down. Democratic lawmakers called it political theater.
But it set the tone for Obama’s meeting with House Speaker John Boehner and
other House Republican leaders about the matter.
A Fox News report summarized the Republican reaction to
the meeting: “Sources say in today’s meeting the speaker pushed the president
on where his debt crisis proposal is, and in the end, lawmakers sounded
disappointed.” The following day, the Moody’s credit rating agency reported
that it was considering downgrading the U.S. credit rating.
Given the increased attention to the 2012 campaign, the
grim economic news was treated as a political story by a number of journalists
A June 2 Reuters article led with the idea that Obama
could have trouble ahead.“Disappointing news on the U.S. economy—the issue most
important to American voters—has cast a cloud over President Barack Obama’s
hopes of reelection next year.”
“President Obama is trying to put the jobs picture in the
best possible light, but right now it’s casting a shadow on his reelection
campaign” said CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on the June 3 Situation Room program.
The Romney Announcement
and the Palin Media Chase
Mitt Romney kicked off his presidential campaign with a
direct jab at the president during his June 2 announcement at a New Hampshire
farm, saying “Barack Obama has failed America.”
The Wall Street
Journal reported that day that Romney would try to position himself as someone
qualified to handle a troubled economy. “The launch came at an uncertain time
for the U.S. economy but an auspicious moment for a candidate who has made job
creation and economic growth the focus of his campaign,” the story stated.
But Romney had to share the spotlight with Palin, whose
refusal to disclose her presidential plans did little to stem media interest. The
phenomenon was so pronounced that much of the political coverage of Palin
consisted of the media talking about themselves.
On June 1, CBS political reporter Jan Crawford described the
media frenzy surrounding the possible presidential candidate on her bus tour
that started with the Rolling Thunder biker rally to commemorate veterans on
the Memorial Day holiday.
“And all the way, reporters were chasing behind her with
the same question”—whether she would run for president.
“Her tour is really stealing the political thunder from
some of the other prospective candidates. With Michele Bachmann in New
Hampshire today, Tim Pawlenty in Iowa, most of the media focus instead was on
Palin,” said Crawford.
Not only would Palin not commit to a presidential run,
she would also not reveal her tour schedule with members of the press, who
complained about being left out of the loop. “I don’t think I owe anything to
the mainstream media,” the former Alaska governor said to Fox News host Greta
Van Susteren in a May 30 interview.
Even so, the press managed to follow her from Washington
to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, then to Baltimore’s Fort McHenry and then Philadelphia
and New York City for a lunch with Donald Trump.
It was Palin’s stop in New Hampshire on the same day that
Romney announced, however, that really fueled the chatter machine of cable news
and talk radio. CNN host Anderson Cooper on June 2 described it this way: “On
the day when Romney planned on grabbing all the headlines, well, Palin did him
one better and showed up in—you guessed it—New Hampshire.”
Palin made some unwelcome news at a June 2 stop in
Boston. Asked by the press to reflect on the historical significance of Revolutionary
War hero Paul Revere, her recounting of his famous ride was dissected, and
mocked in many quarters, for a questionable adherence to the historical facts.
Even before Palin’s Paul Revere flap, a Washington Post
article on June 3 assigned her a “bushel of Pinocchios” on her bus tour,
criticizing Palin’s a “trademark style of making broad assertions with only a
shaky command of the facts.”
The Rest of the
As tensions continued to simmer around the Middle East (the
No. 3 story 9%) last week, the media turned their gaze to Yemen, where dozens
of people were killed in clashes between government forces and tribal
protesters. On June 2, days before the president would leave the country for
Saudi Arabia, ABC’s Diane Sawyer described the situation as “teetering on the
brink of civil war.”
Two political scandals made headlines last week, one the
No. 4 story, the other at No. 5.
On Friday, former vice presidential nominee and South
Carolina Democratic Senator John Edwards was indicted in the latest chapter in
a long narrative of decline and fall from public grace.
“Even before today’s criminal indictment,” said liberal
host Rachel Maddow on her June 3 MSNBC show, “John Edwards’ affair was
newsworthy. Not because a powerful politician was caught catting around on his
wife—and there’s supposedly a sex tape and all the rest of it—but because while
he was catting around, he campaigned on the strength of his marriage.”
New York Congressman Anthony Weiner found himself in the
uncomfortable position of having to explain the appearance of a revealing
photograph sent from his Twitter account over the weekend. (The photo depicted
a male, from below the waist, clad only in underwear). When asked directly
about the origin of the photo by Wolf Blitzer in a CNN interview on Wednesday
June 1, Weiner said that he could not say “with certitude” that the photo was
not of him, but added in his defense that “photos can be manipulated.” (At an
emotional press June 6 press conference, Weiner acknowleged that he made
“terrible mistakes” and “was deeply sorry.”)
Newsmakers of the week
As bad news about the economy mounted
last week, Obama edged out two possible Republican challengers in registering
as the top newsmaker. He was the lead newsmaker in 5% of stories studied by PEJ
between May 30 and June 5.
The No. 2 newsmaker was Mitt
Romney (4%) as the former governor of Massachusetts announced his bid for the
presidency. Sarah Palin, the No. 3 newsmaker at 4%, maintained she was not
launching a campaign, but rather on a family vacation that just happened to stop
in the Granite State on Romney’s big day.
Finally, at No. 4 and No. 5, were
John Edwards and Anthony Weiner, two men who certainly would have preferred to
avoid the headlines last week. They were each the focus of 3% of stories.
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.
Jesse Holcomb of PEJ