“It’s Day Four of the nationwide state of emergency with no
letup in sight,” declared CNN daytime anchor Don Lemon on Nov. 6 as his
newscast relayed the latest details on the crackdown by Pakistan’s President
Pervez Musharraf: Police on the streets
confronting protestors, roughly 3,000 lawyers jailed, and the blackout of
privately run television channels.
Last week, the crisis triggered by Musharraf’s Nov. 3 declaration
of emergency and suspension of the constitution became a media mega-event with several crucial
elements. One was the sheer drama of a strategically crucial nation teetering
on the brink of chaos. The harsh crackdown by Musharraf, the U.S.’s
shaky ally-by-default in the war on terror, also put frustrated American
policymakers in a serious bind. And major upheaval in a country that is home to
an arsenal of nuclear weapons, and reportedly Osama bin Laden as well, carries some
chilling global security risks.
All that helped make the crisis in Pakistan
the top story last week in the news last week, filling 17% of the newshole, as
measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index from Nov. 4-9. It was the leading story
in the newspaper sector (17%), online (27%), and on network TV (21%), and it finished
second in cable (11%) and third in radio (8%).
Only the 2008 presidential race, which accounted for 15% of
last week’s coverage, came anywhere close to competing with Pakistan
for media attention. After that, the
third-biggest story was the situation inside Iraq
(3%), followed by rising gas and oil prices (3%) and another day in court for
cable’s favorite celebrity defendant, O.J. Simpson (3%).
But the trouble in Pakistan
was more than just the leading story of the week. With the exception of Iraq,
it registered the single-highest level of weekly coverage in 2007 of any global
hotspot. (The next highest, 13% of the newshole, was generated when Iran
released its 15 British captives in early April and when its president, Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, made his memorable September trip to Columbia University where he
was dressed down by the school’s President, Lee Bollinger.)
There may be a number of reasons to explain why few
international crises manage to generate a major burst of U.S.
media coverage. Critics have variously cited natural American isolationism, the
cutting back on foreign bureaus, the failure of U.S.
journalists to do international coverage of anything other than war, and more.
Whatever the case, only one other international hotspot has
led the weekly News Coverage Index in 2007, or even attracted double digit
coverage—Iran. Not North Korea,
nor Israel and
its immediate neighbors. Among these conflict-ridden locales, the most coverage
in any week (9% from June 10-15) was devoted to the fighting between Fatah and Hamas
that divided up the Palestinian territories.
Two trouble spots that do tend to make some news fairly
often are closely related to the the war on terror. During 2007, tensions
between the U.S.
and Iran (at 2%
of the newshole) constituted the fifth-biggest overall story of the year. It
became a top weekly story on three occasions, twice during the British hostage
crisis and once during Ahmadinejad’s New York
more than 100 U.S.
troops died in 2007 making it the bloodiest year for American forces—the
conflict, at just 1%, was not a top-10 story this year. The 2007 high point
for coverage of the battle between the U.S.
and a reconstituted Taliban was 4% from Feb. 25-March 2 when a bomb attack
occurred near visiting Vice President Dick Cheney.
the time, a
front-page New York Times story concluded that the strike near Cheney,
“demonstrated that Al Qaeda and the Taliban appear stronger and more emboldened
in the region than at any time since the American invasion of the country five
News Coverage Index examines the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors
of the media. (See 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.)
social and political problems inside Pakistan
also grabbed the media’s attention in July, during the violent battle for
control over the “Red Mosque” between Islamic militants and Pakistani troops. The
biggest week for coverage of the current instability in Pakistan
had been Oct. 14-19 when former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s return from
exile was greeted with attacks that killed over 100 people. That carnage helped
the second-biggest story of that week, at 6%.
But last week, the unrest in Pakistan
became a story of another magnitude, attracting nearly three times the coverage
of the Bhutto homecoming. Aside from chronicling the extent of the crackdown, a
sizeable amount of coverage was devoted to the quandary facing U.S.
officials who are upset with Musharraf’s decision even as they apparently see
little choice but to support him.
Musharraf’s emergency rule “poses a sharp setback for U.S.
efforts to push Pakistan toward democracy, and it calls into question President
Bush’s unstinting support for Musharraf despite the general’s growing
unpopularity and inability to counter hard-line militants…” the Washington Post
reported on Nov. 4.
Two days later, Google News carried
this dispatch from Time magazine noting how Musharraf’s decree had left
American policy between a rock and a hard place: “Bush’s
pro-democracy goals for the country seem as much in conflict as ever with the
U.S.’s other goal— to stamp out the Taliban in Afghanistan and dismantle
terrorist networks operating inside Pakistan.”
If the choice between backing an ally in the war on terror
or standing with Pakistan’s pro-democracy demonstrators
was a tough one for the Administration,
the potential consequences seemed easier for the media to describe. Some used
apocalyptic terms—“chaos,” “nightmare scenario” and “a major new front in the
war”—to describe the risks.
Against the backdrop of a video of Osama bin Laden on
horseback, CBS anchor Katie Couric warned on Nov. 5: “Pakistan has nuclear bombs and missiles,
and some worry that potential chaos there could result in a nightmare scenario
in which those weapons fall into the hands of terrorists.”
A CNN report the next night on Anderson Cooper’s show
(guest hosted by John King) noted how terrorists had recently re-established a
stronger presence in Pakistan. “With the country in crisis,” CNN
analyst Peter Bergen said, “the United States fears that a post-Musharraf Pakistan could become dominated by
radicals, opening a major new front in the war on terror.”
The administration’s worry, he added, is that “today’s Pakistan will become tomorrow’s pre-9/11 Afghanistan…where Al Qaeda can regroup to
plot and prepare future large-scale attacks.”
Thus was the last and most potent ingredient that helps
explain why Pakistan was such big news. It is not
what had happened, but what might happen, that animated much of the discussion.
Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ
Note: On Wednesday, November 7, CNN aired a special program on professional wrestling. Instead of including that program in this week's sample, we included that evening's episode of Anderson Cooper 360.