January 5, 2011

When Pelosi Made News

# of Stories
Interrogation Memos 107
Health Care Debate 76
2010 Election 64
Economy 26
Congressional Scandals 8

#9 – Rank of ex-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi among all newsmakers in the past two years

On January 5, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking female politician in U.S. history, turned the Speakership of the House over to Republican John Boehner. As a key force on Capitol Hill and something of a political lightning rod, Pelosi ranked as the No. 9 newsmaker overall in 2009 and 2010, the two years since Barack Obama became president.  That puts her ahead of Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but behind several prominent women like Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton.

PEJ’s newsmaker rankings are based on the number of stories in which a figure was a prominent newsmaker, meaning he or she was featured in at least 50% of a story. That standard omits many stories in which someone was mentioned or discussed and includes those stories that are fundamentally about that person.

When and why did Nancy Pelosi make major news in the last two years? Given her prominent role in several fierce legislative battles, it may be a bit surprising to find that the biggest portion of her coverage came during the controversy over Bush-era interrogation techniques.

In May 2009, Pelosi came under fire for what she knew about the harsh interrogation tactics—such as sleep deprivation and water-boarding— that came to light in Department of Justice memos. Despite her strong opposition to such methods, the CIA asserted that it had informed congressional leaders about such methods in a September 2002 briefing. Pelosi acknowledged attending the meeting but accused the CIA of “misleading” Congress. Attention to the dispute generated 107 stories in which she was a dominant newsmaker. This accounts for 31% of all the stories prominently featuring Pelosi.

Pelosi generated her next highest level of coverage for her role in the heated health care debate, which culminated in the passage of a bill in March 2010. With hope for a bill greatly diminished after the election of Republican Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts, Pelosi became a major force in the ultimate success of the controversial measure. She was a dominant newsmaker in 76 health care debate stories, which accounted for 22% of all stories in which the Speaker was a lead newsmaker.

More recently, Pelosi was a prominent newsmaker in 64 midterm election stories, which accounted for 18% of her stories. During a campaign season in which the Democrats lost control of the House, the Speaker was a frequent target of Republicans. She also generated some attention for her decision to seek the job as House Minority Leader following the 2010 election.

Next, Pelosi was a prominent newsmaker in 26 stories focused on the economic crisis (accounting for 7% of her coverage). The economy has been the biggest overall story in 2009 and 2010, but unlike the health care issue, Pelosi was not seen as a key figure.

Finally, Pelosi came under fire in coverage of the scandals involving Democratic Representatives Charlie Rangel, who was censured for ethics violations and Eric Massa, who resigned under cloud of sexual misconduct allegations. There were eight stories in which her efforts to run the “most ethical Congress in history” were attacked.

Tricia Sartor of PEJ