The way they were reported, some of the post-mortems on the
Republicans’ Nov. 28 YouTube/CNN debate might have been more appropriately
delivered by tuxedoed ring announcer Michael (“Let’s Get Ready to Rrrrrumble”)
“The day after fight night,” declared George Stephanopoulos
on ABC’s Nov. 29 newscast. “The Republican debate in St.
Petersburg last night was a rumble.”
The Associated Press report carried on Yahoo! News that day followed
a similar if familiar theme: “Welcome to fight night.” The story quickly noted
that in light of the debate fireworks, it was clear that the GOP contenders had
replaced Hillary Clinton with each other as “their preferred punching bag.”
While there’s evidence to suggest that campaign journalists
gravitate toward covering the “horse race” aspects of an election, they also
appear to have an affinity for the prize fight. And last week—one highlighted
by a combative debate featuring an angry opening exchange between Rudy Giuliani
and Mitt Romney—that metaphor proved to be a big one in a big week for campaign
coverage dominated by Republicans.
Overall, campaign coverage filled 19% of the newshole as
measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index for the week of Nov. 25-30. The story led
in all five media sectors and generated the most attention (29%) on cable. The
week proved to be the second-biggest one for election coverage in 2007, trailing
only the period of Nov. 11-16, when the subject accounted for 21% of the
The Mideast gathering at Annapolis,
the Bush administration’s most ambitious effort at Arab-Israeli peacemaking,
was the second-biggest story of the week, at 8%. That was followed by the Nov.
30 hostage standoff, that ended peacefully, at Hillary Clinton’s Rochester
New Hampshire campaign office (5%). The
fourth-biggest story was the situation in Pakistan
(5%) where last week President Pervez Musharraf
stepped down as military chief. And news of the U.S.
economy, which last week included hints of another interest rate cut, finished
fifth at 4%.
With this No. 1 showing, the 2008 campaign continued a run
of intense coverage. The subject has registered as the No. 1 story in four of the
five weeks from Oct. 28 through Nov. 30. It is noteworthy that the five-week interval began
with an Oct. 30 Democratic debate at which Hillary Clinton’s challengers
attacked her vigorously, inspiring more pugilistic metaphors in the media.
(NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, for example, ventured that Clinton
was still “acting tough” after “getting punched around” in that debate.)
Even before the Republican debate in Florida
last week, Giuliani and Romney—the former is leading national polls while the
latter is doing better in Iowa
and New Hampshire—had made news
by criticizing each other in increasingly aggressive terms.
With the caption reading “Gloves Off,” NBC’s Nov. 26 nightly
newscast reported that the two candidates had “hit each other and hit each other
hard” in recent days. After reporting that Giuliani had attacked former
Massachusetts Governor Romney on the issue of crime in that state, NBC correspondent
David Gregory added that “Romney, eager to exchange blows with Giuliani, fired
That dynamic carried over into the Nov. 28 debate, where the
tone was set by a Romney-Giuliani exchange over immigration. Romney accused
Giuliani of running a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants when he was mayor
of New York. Giuliani responded
by accusing Romney of operating a “sanctuary mansion”—a reference to the
illegal workers who helped out around the former Massachusetts Governor’s home.
The exchange proved irresistible for reporters.
The headline on the front-page New York Times Nov. 29 debate
analysis featured even more boxing lingo: “G.O.P. Rivals Exchange Jabs in Testy
One other message that came out of that debate—the
continuing rise of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee—was prominent in both
the Times story and a Los Angeles Times story a day later.
“The debate also reflected a news reality in the Republican
race,” the New York Times said. “Mike Huckabee…played a central role,
demonstrating how he had come from behind to show strength in several recent
polls of Iowa caucus goers.”
“On Thursday, Huckabee savored strong reviews for his
performance the previous night in the CNN-YouTube debate at which the former
Arkansas Governor delivered one-liners, played up his humble roots and proposed
abolishing the IRS in favor of a national sales tax,” added the Los Angeles
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.)
large part to the Florida debate, the
Republicans were featured in about twice as many campaign stories as the
Democrats last week. That bucks a trend that we have seen for a good portion of
When the coverage did turn to Democrats, one
of the big stories was a looming battle of the surrogates.
political face-off the likes of which we’ve never seen,” said MSNBC’s Dan
Abrams, indulging in what some veterans of politics might consider a bit of
hyperbole on his Nov. 27 show. The big news? That former President Bill
Clinton, out stumping on the campaign trail for Hillary, may soon cross paths
in Iowa with Barack Obama’s marquee supporter, Oprah Winfrey.
with the fighting mood of the moment, Abrams’ report set up this prospective
Clinton-Winfrey showdown on the stump as a boxing match, complete with graphics
of boxing gloves and yes, an actual recording of ring announcer Michael Buffer
intoning “Let’s Get Ready to Rrrrrumble.”
42nd President made news of a more policy-oriented nature last week
when he declared that he had “opposed Iraq from the
beginning,” something a number of reports raised doubts about. CBS anchor Katie
Couric said flatly, it “doesn’t square with his past statements.” All told,
Bill Clinton himself was a subject in more than 25% of the campaign stories
last week involving the Democrats.
Clinton-related story grabbed the media’s attention last week, the six-hour
Nov. 30 hostage standoff at Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire campaign office
that ended with no one harmed. (The candidate was not there.) The situation commanded
the attention of the cable news networks who went live to the scene, training
their cameras on the near-vacant streets around the campaign storefront and
hitting up passersby for any possible details. A local man, reported to have
been undergoing mental problems, was ultimately arrested.
only a one-day event, the drama was the second-biggest cable story of the
entire week. It filled 17% of the airtime. For that one day only, on Friday,
the standoff consumed a whopping 79% of the cable newshole measured by the PEJ
Index, which includes five hours of daily prime and daytime cable coverage.
A ballplayer’s death strikes a nerve
crime also gained notice last week. The shooting death of Washington Redskins 24-year-old defensive back
Sean Taylor at his Miami home last week was
the sixth-biggest story at 4%. The subject generated the most coverage on
cable, where it was the No. 3 story at 6%.
sometimes be difficult to parse out why one celebrity death generates more
media attention than another. (By way of inexact comparison, the death of
73-year-old David Halberstam, an author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist killed
in an April car accident, filled only 1% of the newshole when it happened.) Compared
to other crimes involving sports figures this past year, the attention to Taylor’s death equaled
the highest weekly total in the Michael Vick dog fighting case (4%), but was
well behind the 13% of the newshole filled by O.J. Simpson’s September arrest
in Las Vegas.
a number of factors—the athlete’s youth and skill, the violent means of his
death, the criminal investigation into the case, and Taylor’s own troubled
past—that may have helped contribute to the extent of the coverage. And in Washington, where Taylor’s death was a huge
story, that latter issue generated a controversy of its own.
Dec. 2 column, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell addressed reader
complaints that two sportswriters at the paper—Michael Wilbon and Leonard
Shapiro—had been insensitive or worse by “quickly [bringing] up problematic
parts of Taylor’s life.”
speak ill of the dead” wrote Howell in her opening sentence. “This maxim does
not exist in the news business.”
Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ