December 15, 2006

From Russia with Polonium-210?

Nov. 8 – 15 9
Nov. 16 – 23 3140
Nov. 24 – Dec. 1 9610
Dec. 2 – Dec. 11 9420

He died more than two weeks ago, but Alexander Litvinenko is still a big newsmaker. Not only has the case of the London-based former KGB spy—who died of radiation poisoning on Nov. 23—remained a hot topic in the news since his illness first became known in early November. Actually media interest in an international murder mystery with Cold War overtones has grown dramatically in the last two weeks.

The Litvinenko story began on November 1st when it now appears he was poisoned at a hotel bar in London. On November 11, he told the BBC he was in “very bad shape.” And on November 23rd he died from exposure to polonium-210, a radioactive element. The haunting photograph of a gravely ill and hairless Litvinenko on his death bed has become a grim staple of the coverage.

In the week from Nov. 8-15, a PEJ search of Google News found only nine stories featuring the word Litvinenko, with the earliest story showing up on Nov. 10. That number jumped dramatically to 3,140 from Nov. 16–23. Then, from Nov. 24-Dec. 1, his name turned up in 9,610 stories. That would be understandable in the week after his death. But recently the tale has continued to generate intense media coverage, with Litvinenko showing up in 9.420 stories from Dec. 2 to Dec.11.

One explanation for the story’s staying power is the tale’s twisted plot turns. The latest include the search for people and places around London that show signs of polonium-210 exposure and an investigation now reaching into Russia and Germany.

The original reason for the press attention, of course, is the allegation that the Russian government, of which Litvinenko was a vocal critic, might be involved. On November 24, a statement surfaced that was dictated by Litvinenko on his deathbed and blamed the Russian leadership for the poisoning. The Russian government has denied the charge. But that’s why in the Google News search from Dec 2-Dec. 11, two words that frequently show up in stories along with Litvinenko’s name are “Putin” ( 5,270 stories) and “Kremlin” (5,090).