October 27, 2010

When the Press Covers the Press

% of Newshole
Don Imus Fired 26
Tim Russert Dies 5
Juan Williams Fired 5
Comcast/NBC Merger 2
OReilly Restaurant Comments 2

# 3 – Rank of the Juan Williams firing among biggest media stories since 2007

Declaring that he had violated its ethics policies, NPR fired Juan Williams on October 20 after he said on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show that he gets “worried” and “nervous” when he sees people in “Muslim garb” on planes. The firing sparked controversy, generating both journalistic and political debate as numerous commentators condemned the dismissal and South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint introduced a bill to pull federal funding from NPR and PBS.

In all, the saga filled 5% of the newshole for the week of October 18-24, making it the third-biggest news story of the week. And in the days immediately following the firing—October 21-24—it became a bigger story, accounting for 13% of the overall coverage.

But while last week’s coverage of the Williams controversy was substantial, it fell well short of the attention generated by the biggest media-related story since PEJ began its News Coverage Index in January 2007.

The dismissal of talk show host Don Imus by CBS and NBC—after he referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team in racist and sexist language—filled 26% of the newshole the week of April 8-13, 2007.

Unlike the Williams story, the Imus episode took time to percolate. He made the comments on April 4, but the story did not generate major attention until Imus appeared on Al Sharpton’s radio show to discuss the matter five days later. The following day, the Rutgers team held a press conference to condemn the Imus comments. On April 12, after several major advertisers announced they would no longer sponsor his program, NBC dropped the MSNBC simulcast of Imus’ show. The next day, CBS announced it was canceling his radio program.

The second-biggest media story of the past few years was the death of “Meet the Press” host and Washington journalistic icon Tim Russert on June 13, 2008. Due to extensive tributes and remembrances, particularly on NBC and MSNBC where he worked, Russert’s passing filled 5% of the newshole the week of June 9-15, 2008. That amount of coverage, while similar in level to the Williams case, was just slightly higher.

The No. 4 media story was the only one on this list that was primarily business oriented. The announced Comcast merger with NBC Universal filled 2% of the newshole from November 30–December 6, 2009.  That week, the media covered the news of the deal largely as a straight business story without much commentary or speculation about the impact.

The fifth-ranking story also involved Bill O’Reilly. On his September 19, 2007 radio show, the talk host triggered a controversy when he discussed a meal with Al Sharpton at Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem by noting that it was “exactly the same” as dining at any other restaurant despite the fact that it was run and patronized primarily by African Americans. Reaction to that comment accounted for 2% of the newshole from September 23-28, 2007. 

Tricia Sartor of PEJ