Two questions drove last week’s media coverage. First, should
the government offer a financial bailout to the hurting American auto industry?
Second, what do the appointments to his cabinet say about how President-elect
Obama will govern?
Taken together, the country’s financial crisis and the auto
industry’s troubles in particular amounted to the largest topic of media coverage
for the week of Nov. 17 - 23. The transition plans for the new Obama
administration followed, and together they accounted for more than half of the
media’s attention last week.
But while no other media stories came close to rivaling
these major narratives, one new sensational storyline did emerge at the top of
the media last week—Somali piracy. And two familiar plot lines returned to the
media agenda, another dramatic round of California
wildfires, and a milestone agreement reached by the Iraqi government that
garnered relatively little media coverage.
These are among the findings of the News Coverage Index for
Nov. 17 – 23, a weekly study of the media agenda from the Pew Research
Center’s Project for
Excellence in Journalism.
The Economic Crisis
The story of the country’s ailing economy was the largest
story in the news last week, filling 32% of the overall newshole, that is the
time on television and radio and space in print and online. The financial
crisis had two distinct but entangled components to the plot last week. First
was the continuing fallout and follow-up to the government’s financial bailout
of the private banking industry. Last week, that storyline filled 17%. Second
was the question of whether the auto industry should receive similar assistance,
which filled another 15%.
The banking bailout reemerged as a storyline in part because
of hearings on Capitol Hill and the volatility of the stock market, which
dropped more than 200 points for the week. That was fueled in part by troubles
at Citigroup, one of the nation’s largest banks, and by comments from Treasury
Secretary Henry Paulson while testifying on Capitol Hill with Federal Reserve
Chairman Ben Bernanke.
When they announced they would no longer use federal bailout
money to buy toxic securities, as originally proposed, the change of direction
drew criticism in Washington
and on Wall Street. Representative Gary Ackerman, a Democrat from New York, shot back in
the hearing, “You seem to be flying a $700 billion plane by the seat of your
pants. It seems to be the second-largest bait-and-switch scheme that history
has ever seen, second only to the reasons given to us to vote for the invasion
The auto industry was a major story all week, and gained
force when Democrats in Congress proposed a $25 billion bailout package for U.S.
automakers early in the week, and President-elect Obama showed support for taking
some action in his Nov. 16 interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes, but not “a blank
check.” “For the auto industry to completely collapse would be a disaster in
this kind of environment, not just for individual families but the
repercussions across the economy would be dire,” Obama stated.
Much of the media narrative revolved around whether the
government should bail out automakers, whose problems are not so closely tied
to the current financial crisis and whose managers have failed to address long
term problems for years.
A good portion of the coverage involved the arguments back
and forth. The argument for a bailout tended to follow reasoning that allowing
the auto industry to go bankrupt would have dire consequences for an already struggling
economy. “The Big Three automakers employ about
240,000 workers. Add to that the many suppliers that are connected to the auto industry, and that's 2.3 million Americans, 2% of the
nation's workforce,” ABC’s Bianna Golodryga reported on Tuesday’s Good
Morning America. By some counts, she calculated “one out of every 10 jobs in
relies on this industry.”
The arguments against ranged from
fears of too much government involvement to the idea that actual bankruptcy
court proceedings would help the companies more. Former Presidential Candidate Mitt
Romney told NBC’s Today on Thursday, Nov. 20, that he favored conventional
court supervised bankruptcy. “If you write a check they’rere -Search
using: Biographies Plus News News, Most Recent 60 Daysgoing to go out of business. If,
instead, you help them restructure, you make them cost-competitive with the
Japanese, they can stay in business virtually forever. And so this is a time,
an opportunity for us to help these companies shed their excess costs so they
can stay in business.”
less nuanced. “No federal money for the
car companies!” Bill O’Reilly began his show on Wednesday. He went on to blame
the inflexibility of the labor unions for much of the car industry’s problems and
that supporters of the unions and the bailout, such as Congressmen Barney
Frank, were pushing a “socialist vision” that is wreaking havoc on the American
The debate came to a head with the dramatic testimony of the
CEOs of the three major U.S.
automakers in front of Congress on Tuesday. The New York Times headline captured
the sense of the hearings: “Detroit Chiefs Plead for Aid, To Little Avail.”
The sessions became confrontational at times. Many congressmen
wanted to voice what they called the frustration of their constituents. Senator
Richard Shelby of Alabama
asked, will this money “be used to improve their business model and product
lines, or is this just life support?” Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut added, “Their
discomfort in coming to the Congress with hat in hand is only exceeded by the
fact that they are seeking treatment for wounds that are to a large extent
The hearings found a flash point in the fact that all three
CEOs had flown separate private jets to Washington, D.C. “If you're saying your
company's in financial trouble and you're saying you're cutting back to try to
make ends meet, why fly here in a private jet at a cost of up to $20,000?” CNN
correspondent Joe Johns asked rhetorically on the Wednesday edition of Campbell
Brown’s prime time program, now called “No Bias No Bull.”
If the economy was the crisis of the moment, the transition
to a new Presidency was the context in which the events unfolded. Overall,
indeed, the transition filled 23% of the media newshole, about the same amount
as it had been the previous week (at 24%).
But if the story of the transition began with signals from
Obama about the economic crisis, more of the week was dominated by leaks
involving his possible appointments. There even were stories by the end of the
week about how the leak-free Obama camp was now leaking.
Friday afternoon featured multiple reports that the Obama
transition team had decided on some key cabinet appointments not yet announced.
More than half of the coverage relating to Obama’s transition was focused on
his appointments and speculation as to what his appointments said about his
governing style. Most notably were reports that seemingly ended the week-long
speculation as to whether Obama’s Democratic rival for the nomination, Hillary
Clinton, would accept the job as Secretary of State.
Prior to Friday’s news, there were few official
announcements coming from the Obama team. Many suggested he had decided on a
few posts, such as Eric Holder as attorney general, but since little had been
formally announced, much of the news coverage revolved around rumors and
speculation. In particular, many pundits debated what the rumored appointments
would suggest about Obama’s governing style.
Some critics suggested Obama was looking too much toward veterans
from the Clinton
administration and that by doing so, he was not offering the change he had
promised during the campaign. Eric Holder had been a top Justice Department
aide during the Clinton
administration. And of course former First Lady Hillary Clinton would be even a
On Fox News, Sean Hannity opened his Tuesday interview with
Congressman Michelle Bachmann by asking, “Hillary [as] Secretary of State, now
we got Eric Holder here, now we got the Marc Rich pardon, now we got every Clinton scandal coming
into play. Do you see this as change?” (Bachmann agreed it was not.)
From the left, columnist Christopher Hitchens appeared on
Tuesday’s edition of MSNBC’s new 1600
Pennsylvania Avenue program and criticized both
the Holder choice and the likely Clinton
appointment. Hitchens was particularly harsh on Clinton by saying, “If there
was some foreign policy experience or brilliance Hillary Clinton had ever
shown, maybe we would overlook the fact that she and her husband have never met
a foreign political donor they don't like….But I don't know of any such
expertise on her part except her pretense to have been under fire in Bosnia
when she had not.”
Another clear theme in the media narrative was the
suggestion that Obama’s picks meant he wanted to surround himself with
strong-minded individuals who did not agree with him on every issue. This, as
Andrea Mitchell reported on Monday’s Today Show, was a lesson learned from
reading about Abraham Lincoln who had out reached to his former rivals.
Chris Matthews even suggested on Tuesday’s Hardball that
part of the “unity” and “change” message that Obama was carrying out meant
forgiving and accepting, and that the appointment of his former rival Clinton
and the reluctance to condemn Joe Lieberman for campaigning against him was
part of the actual change he was bringing to Washington. “It [unity] means dealing with
people who were against you and hurt you,” Matthews suggested, “Is this
something bigger than we're used to?”
A public part of that reconciliation took place on Monday
when Obama held a meeting with Senator John McCain, the man he had recently
defeated. While the talk was of reconciliation and cooperation, much of the
media’s focus was on the body language and uncomfortable nature of the
occasion. On CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight, Ed Henry noted how McCain and Obama
discussed controversial issues they plan to work together on including
immigration and closing Guantanamo
Bay. “Those are hot
button issues that will be hard to find common ground,” Henry reported. “Especially
since the body language suggested it would not be easy to heal their divisions.
This moment had awkward written all over it.”
Newsmakers of the
Three of the top four newsmakers of the week, not including
Obama, were tied to the President-elect. The speculation about whether Hillary
Clinton would be named Secretary of State made her the lead newsmaker in 3% of
the stories for the week. Eric Holder, Obama’s pick for Attorney General, was 2nd
at 2%. Joe Lieberman, who faced retribution for supporting McCain but
ultimately got to keep his committee chairmanship in the Senate, was 4th.
(Obama, who dominated all others, was the top newsmaker in 8% of all the
stories last week).
One other political figure also made big news last week, but
he was the only major one who wasn’t connected to the new Administration. The 3rd
leading newsmaker was Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, who officially lost his bid for reelection
after the recount was concluded on Nov. 19. Stevens had been a controversial
figure because he had been convicted just a few weeks before the election of
seven counts of failing to report gifts he received as an elected official.
The Rest of the
After the two major storylines of the week - the economy and
the new Obama administration - no other topics garnered more than 3% of the
The No. 4 storyline (at 3%) brought back a term that seemed
to elicit thoughts of crimes from previous centuries. Pirates have attacked an
estimated 80 ships this year near the coast of Somalia, and even though the crimes
are quite serious, much of the news coverage could not help but utilize pop
culture imagery of previous pirates. On the Nov. 19 Today Show, their story
included footage from movies such as the Pirates of the Caribbean while reporter
Dawna Friesen stated, “Though the swashbuckling of Hollywood is hardly the
style of modern pirates, the objective is the same: money.”
The No. 5 story of the week was the wildfires in Southern California that burned 40,000 acres in about
four days and destroyed hundreds of homes. It also filled 3% of the newshole.
Stories No. 6 and 7 were both related to Congress. Story No.
6 was about the workings of the new 111th Congress which will come
to session in January. Much of that coverage was focused on Senator Joe
Lieberman and whether he would keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security
Committee. The No. 7 story focused on the Congressional election results in the
three states, Alaska, Minnesota,
that were still in the process of being resolved.
The No. 8 story of the week may be more memorable for how
little noticed it was. On Sunday, Nov. 16, Iraq’s
cabinet overwhelmingly approved a proposed security agreement that was
negotiated with the United States
and calls for a complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. The
agreement led to violent protests in Iraq.
There was a time, not that long ago, when the formal
agreement to a deadline for American withdrawal form Iraq might have conceivably
dominated the American news agenda. No longer. Last week, driven by the security agreement for Iraq, events in Iraq
was the No. 8 story of the week and filled 2% of the newshole.
About the NCI
PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index examines the news
agenda of 48 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.
and Tricia Sartor of PEJ