During a televised press conference on May 29, Centers for
Disease Control (CDC) director Dr. Julie Gerberding informed the nation that a
man carrying a very dangerous form of drug-resistant tuberculosis may have
infected passengers aboard several cross-Atlantic flights in May.
Because this “organism is so potentially serious…a federal
order of isolation” had been issued for the unnamed infected man, Gerberding
explained. It was the first such federal action, she added, in more than 40
Only three days later, on June 1, that mystery man—also
known as “Patient Zero”—gave an exclusive interview to Diane Sawyer on ABC’s
“Good Morning America.” Wearing a white mask over his mouth, Andrew Speaker, a
31-year-old Atlanta lawyer confined
to a Denver hospital, had a message
for those who accused him of being a modern day Typhoid Mary.
“I’m very sorry for any grief or pain that I’ve caused
anyone,” he said. “I really believed that I wasn’t putting people at risk.
[Doctors] told me I wasn’t contagious, I wasn’t dangerous.”
Speaker’s overseas odyssey struck a number of sensitive and
critical chords last week. (One doctor told ABC News it was a scenario that
“could have been written by Shakespeare.”) It triggered a global public health
scare, placed the CDC at the center of a controversy, raised questions about
terrorism preparedness and border security, and touched on the basic issue of
personal accountability and morality.
Not surprisingly, the case turned out to be the biggest
story of the week, filling 12% of the newshole, according to PEJ’s News
Coverage Index from May 27-June 1. The
TB saga was a top five story in all five media sectors, but it was primarily a
television phenomenon. It was the top story in both network (16%) and cable TV (24%),
although CNN’s prime-time lineup devoted far more time to the subject than
Fox’s. And MSNBC’s cable talk lineup virtually ignored the story.
The 2008 Presidential race—the second biggest overall story
last week (9%)—was the top event in the newspaper (8%) and radio (15%) sectors.
Two major story lines were Republican Fred Thompson inching closer to a formal
candidacy and the impact two new books about Hillary Clinton might have on the
course of her campaign.
The third biggest story was the situation inside Iraq
(7%). But when you add that category together with the impact of the war at
home (fourth biggest story at 4%) and the policy debate (seventh biggest story
4%), Iraq combined to account for 15% of all of last week’s coverage.
The continuing debate over immigration policy was the fifth
biggest overall subject at 4%. And it was the second leading story on radio
where conservative talk hosts continue to hammer away at the May 17 compromise
Coverage of the sixth biggest story, the conflict with Iran
(4%) started off on a mildly optimistic note with news of the May 28 direct talks
between Washington and Tehran
on the situation in Iraq.
But by the end of the week, tensions again ratcheted up as the U.S.
issued warnings to Iran’s
government about four detained Iranian-Americans and the continuation of its
nuclear enrichment program.
PEJ’s News Coverage
Index is a study of the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors
of the media. (See a List of Outlets.) It is designed to provide news
consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and
topics the media are covering, the trajectories of major stories and
differences among news platforms. (See Our Methodology.)
From the moment the news
about the TB flight scare broke on May 29, events moved at a brisk pace with
new angles regularly revealing themselves. On her May 30 show, CNN’s Paula Zahn
interviewed homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve about how the
infected lawyer managed to elude authorities in an era when there are serious concerns
about everything from bioterrorism to a bird flu pandemic.
frightening and embarrassing,” said Zahn. “What if this had been smallpox?”
By May 31, the media
reported on another new and surprising wrinkle in the tale. It was learned that
Speaker’s new father-in-law, Dr. Robert Cooksey, works as a tuberculosis
researcher for the CDC.
NBC’s Brian Williams led
his newscast with what he called “a huge twist” in a story that has become “an
even more bizarre tale tonight.” The report included footage of Cooksey—who
denied having anything to do with Speaker’s infection—issuing a statement
warning the media “not to hype this because it is a very complicated
The next morning, as
Speaker emerged from the shadows in his interview with Sawyer, the New York
Times published a front-page story describing how the tuberculosis victim
managed to cross back into the U.S. from Canada by car despite the warning that had been
issued to border agents.
By Friday evening,
the story had evolved to the point where the blame game was in full swing. On
his June 1 Fox News Channel show, Sean Hannity put it bluntly.
“So who’s to blame
for the fiasco, the Speakers or the CDC?” Hannity said. “He was repeatedly told
that that he was not infectious…I blame the CDC.”
For her part, Fox
News legal analyst Lis Wiehl took a different view, calling Speaker “reckless”
and criticizing him for “sneak[ing] into this country.”
If nothing else, this
complex saga also says something about television’s growing power as a witness
box in the court of public opinion. Not too long ago, one could envision
someone like Speaker—who says he’s received considerable hate mail—lying low
until media and public interest died down. Not only did he choose to tell his
story to ABC’s Sawyer last week. This week, he’s scheduled to chat with the
primary practitioner of prime-time
schmooze, CNN’s Larry King.
Even as the media
seemed preoccupied with Speaker’s story last week, there were several
significant events driving coverage of the war in Iraq. The situation on the ground inside Iraq was punctuated by several sobering
milestones. After a bloody Memorial Day on which 10 U.S. troops were killed, May 2007 became the third
deadliest month in the four-year-old war for American military personnel.
One of the stories
fueling interest in the war on the homefront was the announcement by anti-war
protestor Cindy Sheehan that she was stepping away from the movement, at least
temporarily. In a May 29 interview with liberal radio talk host Ed Schultz,
Sheehan said she had been deeply “affected” by the May 24 Congressional vote to
continue funding the war without troop withdrawal timetables. It’s “time to
reevaluate the direction we’re going in,” she told Schultz. “Obviously, the
direction we’re going has stopped being effective.”
Coverage of the Iraq policy debate featured a number of issues
including a May 30 report on CNN’s “Situation Room” that the administration
might be considering a lengthy, perhaps decades-long, troop presence in Iraq. Host Wolf Blitzer stated that the White House
was “raising eyebrows” by citing “the U.S. presence in South Korea as a possible model for the future of the U.S. mission in Iraq.” Blitzer pointed out that there are
currently 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, a remnant of a war that ended more than five
Several initiatives by
President Bush became major news events last week. The ninth biggest story (at
2%) was triggered by the President’s announcement of additional sanctions
designed to get the Sudanese government to halt the violence in Darfur. The eighth biggest story (global warming at 2%)
was largely a reaction to Bush’s decision, in advance of this week’s G-8
Summit, to call for an international effort to reduce greenhouse gases.
The President’s move
triggered a fairly lively media debate about whether the U.S. is now seriously embracing some of the more
aggressive environmental policies of many of its allies. A June 1 story in the
Austin American-Statesman reported on the administration’s greenhouse gas
initiative, but also published critics’ complaints that the President is
“ignoring other international efforts on climate change that are already under
way and is trying to avoid taking action until he leaves office.”
Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ
Note: MSNBC did not run any of its normal programming on Monday, May 28, due to the Memorial Day holiday. Therefore, we did not include any of MSNBC's Monday shows in this week's sample.