November 18, 2009

The Dobbs Difference

Lou Dobbs Other CNN Hosts
Economic Crisis 18.4 15.1
Health Care Debate 12.4 6.7
Swine Flu 3.9 1.8
Immigration 3.9 0.3
U.S. Terror & Prevention 3 5
Afghan- istan 2.4 4
Mexican Drug War 2.4 0.9
Michael Jackson Dies 2.4 5.5
Iran 1.7 3.4
Pakistan 0.1 1.1

13 to 1—Ratio of Lou Dobbs’ coverage of Immigration in 2009 compared to his CNN colleagues

Veteran CNN anchor Lou Dobbs abruptly resigned on November 11. His opinion-oriented approach to news had become jarringly at odds with the network’s lineup of more ideologically neutral hosts. So what will be missing? What did Dobbs bring to CNN’s news lineup?

In addition to his commentary, and his self-styled image as a sort of media crusader, Dobbs had a measurably different agenda in what his show covered in 2009 versus CNN’s other major news-oriented hosts—Wolf Blitzer, Campbell Brown and Anderson Cooper. Indeed, Blitzer, Brown and Cooper each devoted similar levels of attention to many of these major stories.

Dobbs gave more time than other CNN anchors to a number of domestic issues that showcased his brand of fiery nationalism and populism. At the same time, his evening program paid less attention to several foreign policy and national security issues this year—as well as one big celebrity story.

During 2009, Dobbs’ No. 1 story was the economic crisis. He devoted 18.4% of the airtime studied by PEJ to the subject compared with 15.1% for the other three hosts. A closer look at these stories suggests themes embedded in his coverage of the economy included outrage at Wall Street, a focus on the unemployment crisis and California’s fiscal emergency.

There was a major gap in coverage of the health care debate, which filled 12.4% of Dobbs’ newshole compared with 6.7% for his colleagues—a difference of almost 2-to-1. An examination of this coverage finds it included skepticism about President Obama’s plan to reform health care and some discussion about whether illegal immigrants would be covered under the measure.

Dobbs also spent about twice as much time on the swine flu (3.9% to 1.8%), often focusing on the shortage of vaccine and at times expressing concern that the U.S. might ship some of that vaccine to countries abroad.

Two other stories that were more important to Dobbs than to other CNN hosts involved a signature issue—immigration and border security. A staunch advocate of muscular enforcement who triggered protests by some Hispanic groups, Dobbs devoted more than 10 times as much coverage to immigration than his CNN colleagues (3.9% to .3%) and about three times more coverage (2.4% to .9%) to a related topic—drug violence in Mexico and its impact on the U.S.

Conversely, Dobbs spent less time than other CNN hosts on some major national security and geopolitical stories in 2009. Combined, Dobbs devoted a little more than half the attention his colleagues did (8.1% to 14.2%) to five of these subjects—ranging from Afghanistan to the fight against terrorism.

While the three other programs spent 4% of their airtime on the intensifying war in Afghanistan, that topic accounted for 2.4% of Dobbs’s coverage. There was a similar gap in attention to U.S. efforts to combat terrorism (3.0% to 5.0%). And Dobbs devoted only half as much airtime to tensions with Iran (1.7% to 3.4%) and about one-tenth as much coverage to the unrest inside Pakistan (.1% to 1.1%). His coverage of the war in Iraq was marginally larger than that of the other hosts, (.9% to .7%).

The just-departed anchor was also distinctly less interested what was clearly the biggest entertainment/tabloid story of the year. While the Michael Jackson saga accounted for 5.5% of the airtime on the other three CNN shows, Dobbs devoted only 2.4% of his coverage to the fallout from the death of the King of Pop.

In his final appearance on CNN, Dobbs stressed the populism and activism that differentiated him at the cable network, saying leaders in “media, politics and business have been urging me to go beyond the role here at CNN to engage in constructive problem solving."