In a week chock full of major events designed to address the
crisis—a fiscal responsibility summit, a prime-time presidential speech and the
unveiling of Obama’s first budget—the increasingly frail state of the U.S. economy again
dominated the headlines.
And amid the swirl of events, a media meta narrative was
forming that was considerably greater than the sum of the news: After only five
weeks in office, Obama was staking his presidency on a stunning and sweeping overhaul
of domestic priorities.
Driven primarily by the Obama budget and concerns over the
nation’s red ink, the economic crisis was easily the top story from February
23-March 1, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in
Journalism. It filled 38% of the newshole, compared with 39 % the previous
week. But that is only a partial indicator of the dominance of economic news
The second biggest story (10% of newshole), was
Obama’s Feb. 24 speech—delivered to Congress but aimed at living rooms—intended
to strike a balance between reassurance and urgency about the country’s
economic stability. Coverage of the failing U.S. auto industry accounted for
another 2%. Some of the media’s attention to the mechanics of the new Administration
last week also included an analysis of Obama’s ambitious efforts at domestic
As events unfolded, the developing theme was the sheer
breadth and scope of the change—certain to trigger major battles in Washington—that
Obama was pushing in the early days of his tenure.
“The budget President Obama proposed on Thursday is nothing less than an
attempt to end a three-decade era of economic policy dominated by the ideas of
Ronald Reagan and his supporters,” declared a story in the New York Times.
A similar, if blunter, sentiment came from Atlantic Media blogger Andrew
Sullivan who wrote that Obama had seized on the economic crisis as a “moment
for more radicalism than might have seemed possible only a couple of months ago...If
none of this works, he will have taken a massive gamble and failed. But if any
of it works, if the economy recovers…then we're talking less Reagan than FDR in
“It's going to be a
riveting first year, isn't it?” he added.
The Economic Crisis:
In a sign of how pervasive and
diverse the economic problems are, for the third week in a row a different
component of the financial crisis drove coverage of the economy. Three weeks
ago, it was the debate over the $787 billion stimulus package. Two weeks ago,
it was the housing and mortgage package unveiled by the administration. Last
week, February 23-March 1, Obama’s budget proposal and the nation’s growing
deficit combined as the top theme, accounting for one-third (33%) of the financial
meltdown coverage. The next largest storyline was the continuing banking and credit
crunch and the financial bailout program (21% of the economic newshole)
followed by coverage of the still simmering debate over Obama’s stimulus plan,
The week began with a White House
event clearly intended to demonstrate the President’s concern about the red ink
in light of massive federal spending—a February 23 fiscal responsibility
Obama is bringing together dozens of advisers and adversaries to discuss how to
curb a burgeoning federal deficit laden with Social Security, Medicare and
Medicaid obligations,” said an AP story posted on AOL news. “Obama's summit at
the White House on Monday is the first meeting toward a strategy to address the
long-term fiscal health of the nation…Even before it began, some of its 130
invited participants cautioned against over inflated expectations.”
ominous economic news, however, seemed to move faster than Washington’s ability to keep pace. “Tonight
the topic is jobs and we have another grim new number,” declared Brian Williams
on the February 26 NBC newscast. “Six hundred and sixty-seven thousand
Americans filed for first time unemployment benefits, just last week.”
What came next
was an economic man-bites-dog story, slices of the economy—or “pockets of
optimism”—that were doing well in tough times. Among the examples were a shoe
repair business in South Florida (because people aren’t buying new shoes) and a
mechanic in San Antonio
who opened an auto repair shop in his backyard.
Toward the end of the week, however, the Obama budget and
its potential implications simply overwhelmed the rest of the narrative.
“In $3.6 Trillion Budget, Obama Signals Broad Shift in
Priorities,” declared the banner headline atop the February 27 Washington Post.
In an accompanying analysis, Dan Balz wrote that, “President Obama's first
budget—with its eye-popping $1.75 trillion deficit, a health-care fund of more
than $600 billion, a $150 billion energy package and proposals to tax wealthy
Americans even beyond what he talked about during his campaign—underscores the
breadth of his aspiration to reverse three decades of conservative governance
and use his presidency to rapidly transform the country.”
“Like Ronald Reagan for Republicans 28 years ago, the new
Democratic president is staking out his party's position on spending and taxes.
Whereas Reagan sought to limit government, Obama wants to expand its reach,” added
the February 27 USA Today story, while conjuring up the President’s favored campaign
“This is change, whether you believe in it or not.”
Not surprisingly, Obama’s first big speech to Congress
attracted considerably more attention (10% of the newshole) than George Bush’s
final State of the Union Address (6%).
Among other things, circumstances prompted lots of
historical comparisons, most frequently to Franklin Delano Roosevelt who took
office in the midst of the Great Depression. And many of the commentators
seemed to be gauging the speech for its psychological content, eager to see
whether Obama could ladle out enough hope to go along with the castor oil of
current economic reality.
“It's interesting to compare Obama's first big presidential
speech with Roosevelt's,” ventured Michael
Kinsley in an op-ed column. “On the
all-important Reassure-o-Meter, I'd call it a tie.”
On the February 25 edition of CBS’s Early Show, chief Washington correspondent
Bob Schieffer cited snap polls showing a favorable reaction to the speech. (One
CBS survey indicated the percentage of those who approved the President’s
economic plans jumped to 80% after the speech compared with 63% before.)
“I thought it was a very effective speech,” said Schieffer.
“He tried to explain some of the bitter medicine that he says is going to be
needed to get the economy going again.” Then Schieffer returned to that key
theme in the week’s media narrative, declaring that Obama is “staking his
presidency on this enormous program.”
A more critical assessment came in William Kristol’s
column. “Obama's speech reminds of Ronald Reagan's in 1981 in its intention to
reshape the American political landscape. But of course Obama wishes to undo
the Reagan agenda,” he wrote. Republicans “can't allow Obama to make of 2009
what Franklin Roosevelt made of 1933 or Johnson of 1965.”
Newsmakers of the Week
All this meant that Obama was an even bigger story last week
than he had been. From Feb. 23-March 1, the President was a lead
newsmaker—meaning he was featured in at least 50% of a story—in 20% of the
week’s stories, his highest level of coverage since inauguration week.
No one else came remotely close to matching the President’s
coverage and his closest competitor suffered by comparison—on several fronts.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, touted as a rising young Republican star, was
given the largely thankless task of responding to Obama’s February 24 speech,
and he turned in what the media considered a shaky performance, panned by
liberals and conservatives alike. For that, he was the No. 2 newsmaker of the
week, but only at 1% of the stories.
At No. 3 (also at 1%) was Gary Locke, the former Washington governor and
the newest candidate in Obama’s third attempt at picking a Commerce Secretary.
After that came a man who had a mixed week. The good news for Tiger Woods (1%)
was that he returned to professional golf competition after an eight-month
absence due to knee surgery. The bad news was the he was upset in the second
round of the Accenture Match Play tournament by South Africa native Tim Clark who
had yet to win on the PGA Tour. The
fifth newsmaker on the list, also at 1%, was Attorney General Eric Holder.
The Rest of the Week’s News
Almost lost amid the tsunami of economic news was, oh, the
end of the war in Iraq.
After the economic crisis and the President’s speech accounted for almost 50%
of the week’s newshole, the No. 3 story from February 23-March 1 involved a
major foreign policy decision that formally ended the political debate over the
The news that Obama planned to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq by August
2010, leaving behind a residual force of about 50,000, filled 6% of the
newshole. While that represented twice as much coverage as Obama’s decision to
send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan the previous week, that modest
level of attention is a reflection of
how much has changed in a year. At one point, Iraq looked to be the burning issue
in the 2008 presidential race and Obama used it to differentiate himself from
Hillary Clinton in their long primary battle. But early in 2008, months before
the dimensions of the meltdown became known, it was clear that economic worries
had surpassed the war as the most important issue for voters.
Even more stunning, in its own way, was the almost unanimous
acceptance of the policy change, praised by officials from George Bush’s
cabinet and John McCain’s camp. The only discordant note seemed to come from
the left of Obama’s own party, who grumbled about the number of troops that
The fourth-biggest story of the week, at 5%, was
coverage of the mechanics of the new Obama administration, where the
President’s appointments, most notably Gary Locke, dominated the narrative. The
No. 5 story at 2% was coverage of the Academy Awards where the big news was the
film Slumdog Millionaire, which walked away with eight statues. Some
conservative talk hosts, including Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage, also had
something to say the liberal proclivities of Hollywood and Sean Penn, an outspoken
activist who won an Oscar for his portrayal of openly gay San Francisco
Supervisor Harvey Milk.
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