No. 3 - Rank of Pastor Terry Jones among unexpected headline makers of 2010
Until recently, Terry Jones, the pastor of a small church in Gainesville, Florida, was not exactly a household name. But Jones sparked an international firestorm, triggered widespread condemnation and generated major media coverage with his “burn a Koran day” marking the ninth anniversary of September 11. The pastor ultimately changed his plans. But the controversy filled a full 15% of the media newshole the week of September 6-12, making it the No. 2 story behind only the struggling economy, at 17%.
A number of public figures—from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh—criticized the media for their attention to Jones. But the leader of a congregation of around 50 people registered as a lead newsmaker in 64 stories examined by PEJ last week, generating more coverage than anyone other than President Obama. (To be considered a lead newsmaker, someone must be featured in at least 50% of a story.)
And on the roster of obscure figures who suddenly found themselves in the media spotlight in 2010, Jones generated the third highest level of coverage. (People included in this grouping were not previously known in fields ranging from the arts to politics to sports). And perhaps more than anyone else on the list, he triggered a debate about the newsworthiness of his actions.
Like Jones, a number of 2010’s top sudden newsmakers gained attention for negative reasons. Some were involved in terrorists or criminal acts.
Faisal Shahzad, charged in the attempted May 1 Times Square car bomb plot, is the No. 1 figure, registering as a lead newsmaker in 197 stories. Colleen LaRose (aka Jihad Jane), the Philadelphia resident whose arrest for aiding terrorists was made public in March, is tied for No. 8 on the list, at 28 stories.
Joseph Stack, who flew his plane into a Texas IRS building in February, killing himself and one other, was No. 4, a lead newsmaker in 44 stories. Omar Thornton generated 34 stories after he killed eight co-workers in August at the beer distribution company where he had worked. And John McClusky, tied for eighth with 28 stories, made news when he and his fiancé escaped from an Arizona jail and were on the run for three weeks before being captured in August. Some coverage depicted the couple as a modern day Bonnie and Clyde.
Another top newsmaker was embroiled in controversy. Jim Sikes (No. 7 with 30 stories) made headlines back in early March when he called 911 and claimed his Toyota Prius was speeding out of control and unable to stop. The story came amidst a series of Toyota recalls for “‘sticky accelerator” and brake problems, but significant doubt has been cast on his version of the events.
Several other sudden newsmakers have recently been in the headlines for very different reasons. Shirley Sherrod, the Department of Agriculture worker who was initially forced out of her job after a misleadingly edited video of a NAACP speech made her appear racist, was No. 2 at 97 stories. And Steven Slater, (tied for No. 8 with 28 stories) gained near-cult status in August when he quit his job as a Jet Blue flight attendant by cursing the passenger, grabbing a beer, and deploying the emergency exit slide. That case is currently being investigated.
One politician, perhaps the biggest surprise in a surprising election season, did make our list of unexpected newsmakers. Alvin Greene, an unemployed military veteran who is facing felony obscenity charges, stunned political observers when he emerged as the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate from South Carolina without running an active campaign. He has been a newsmaker in 36 stories, making him No. 5 on our list.
Tricia Sartor of PEJ
Some people describe it as The End of the Internet, though that is probably a misnomer.
Others, at the risk of cliché, might call it News 3.0.
Maybe the best way to understand what is occurring today with the way people interact with the news and technology is to think of it as the end of our digital childhood.
By whatever term you give it, the latest biennial survey on news consumption from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reveals signs of a new phase, perhaps even a new era, in the acquisition and consumption of news.
And there is every reason to expect the shift will only accelerate now with a new wave of technology devices – from smartphones to iPad-style devices – which the data do not fully measure.
In the last two years, people have begun to do more than replace old news platforms with new ones. Instead, the numbers suggest that people are beginning to exploit the capacity of the technology to interact with information differently.
This notion – that we are beginning to use the tools differently without necessarily abandoning the old ones – can be seen first in the amount of time people spend getting news. Compared with much of the past decade, people say they are spending more time each day acquiring or interacting with news.
In addition to the roughly one hour they spend with traditional platforms – which is largely unchanged from a decade ago – on average they spend another 13 minutes a day getting news online. Traditional platform use has stabilized (or has declined only slightly) in the last few years. And the online numbers, as the survey report notes, do not include time spent getting news on cell phones or other digital devices, the arena where news producers are now focusing so much of their effort and seeing so much potential.
The data reinforce findings that we began to see earlier this year when the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Internet and American Life Project collaborated on a survey that explored the new participatory culture for news. That survey asked a new battery of questions and opened up new areas of inquiry. The newest People-Press survey also tracks the trends on long-standing questions, adding to our knowledge about these shifts.
Why have we moved into this new phase -- where people are not simply replacing old technologies with new but using new ones for different things or in different ways, augmenting their more traditional behavior?
One explanation is that the content is changing. News producers are beginning to understand how they can deliver news in new ways to create new understanding, whether through the use of online graphics, customizing news to fit a consumer’s interest or location, or recognizing the public as a community that participates in the news rather than an audience that receives it. Another factor is improved connections and faster speeds that bring the technology’s potential to life. A third is that consumers themselves are changing, recognizing that each platform has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. The strength of an aggregator or search engine, which allows someone to find answers to his or her own specific questions, is very different from the agenda-setting power of a newscast or a newspaper front page (even online), in which the news is ordered and presented for you. The power of a social networking site to tell you what people you know are thinking about or reading is different than the convenience of using a smartphone on the spur of the moment to check a fact or scan a headline.
And these notions are reinforced in the data about why people say they use different media. News has many different functions in our lives; the proliferation of devices, platforms and products makes that variety more recognizable for us as consumers. The quick scan of news we might get from a cell phone is a different experience from the deeper interaction that users of the iPad say that they experience with those devices. The survey data show this is even true for traditional media. A large majority of regular CNN viewers say they turn to it for the latest news and headlines, while Bill O’Reilly’s viewers turn to him for interesting views and opinions. The numbers reveal USA Today has a different function for its readers (primarily the latest headlines) than do the two other national papers in the United States, the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, which are more valued for in-depth reporting.
The numbers also reveal some older publications, because of their strengths, are appealing to new audiences in ways they almost certainly never could have without the creative destruction and promise of the digital age. Regular readers of The New York Times are young – 34% are younger than 30, compared with 23% of the public – suggesting that a new generation of readers is discovering virtues of the newspaper that had been known as the Old Gray Lady. The growing popularity of search engines, directing people to sites like nytimes.com, apparently has had an effect.
It all points to something we might have forgotten. The medium may not quite be the message, as Marshall McLuhan argued two generations ago. But the medium does make a difference. Different platforms serve us differently, and there is now more evidence people are integrating all of them into their lives.
Read the survey.
Tom Rosenstiel, PEJ Director
1:2 - Ratio of news coverage generated by Glenn’s Beck’s Restoring Honor rally to that of the tea party rallies on April 15, 2009
The August 28 rally in Washington organized by conservative talk show host and political commentator Glenn Beck drew a large crowd—estimates ranged from 80,000 to 500,000 people—along with a fair amount of media attention.
The rally, which was focused on faith and values, filled 3.5% of the media newshole the week of August 30-September 5, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. That made it the 7th biggest story that week as measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index, ahead of such other topics as the trapped Chilean miners and a fire aboard another off-shore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
But the Beck rally was hardly the most covered demonstration in recent years. For instance, that level of coverage was about half the attention given to a coordinated series of “tea party” rallies held April 15, 2009. Those rallies, held in more than 750 cities across the United States, filled 7.1% of the newshole the week of April 13-19, 2009. That level of coverage made the tea party events the most covered domestic rally or protest since the PEJ began the news index in January 2007.
The second-most-covered demonstration revolved around the 2007 May Day rallies around the country in support of immigration reform and the alleged misconduct of police during the rally in Los Angeles. The story filled with 6.7 percent of the newshole the week of April 29-May 4, 2007.
The No. 3 protest event was the rally—led by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton--on behalf of the “Jena 6”, six black teens in Jena, LA, who were charged for beating up a white student. That story, filled 4.7% of the newshole from September 16 – 21, 2007.
Rounding out the top 5 protest events are the September 12, 2009 protests held in Washington against the Obama Administration’s fiscal and domestic policies. Coverage of the protests filled 2.3% of the media newshole the week of September 14-20, 2009.
But none of these demonstrations compare to the coverage given the protests in Iran following the disputed June 2009 presidential elections in that country. From June 15-21, 2009 coverage of the protests filled 27.5% of the media newshole.
Tricia Sartor of PEJ
#9 - Rank of Pakistan flooding among biggest weeks of 2010 international disaster coverage
More than five weeks of flooding in Pakistan have created a devastating disaster in that nation. According to the Washington Post, the floods have left about 1,600 dead and as many as 20 million injured, homeless or otherwise affected. UN officials estimated that a fifth of the country was under water as of August 12. And Bloomberg News reported that food crops worth $2.9 billion had been destroyed.
Despite the grim statistics the disaster has received relatively modest coverage in the U.S. press—at its peak, the flooding story filled 4% of the newshole the week of Aug 16-22. That made it the No. 8 story that week, behind such topics as the trial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and coverage of the 2010 election season.
Indeed, when it comes to international disaster stories, neither the Pakistan floods, nor any other such event, came close to generating the five weeks of coverage devoted to the January 12 earthquake that rocked Haiti, leaving up to a reported 230,000 people dead. That first week, January 11-17, the quake took up a full 41% of the newshole. And coverage remained high for the next several weeks, filling 27% the week of January 18-24, 11% from January 25-31, and falling to 8% and 5% the weeks of February 1-7 and February 8-14, respectively.
Several others overseas disasters that occurred this year also generated more attention than the Pakistan story. The ash-producing Icelandic volcano that disrupted travel plans across the Atlantic and all over Europe produced two weeks of significant coverage—7% of the newshole for the week of April 12-18 and 11% the following week, April 19-25.
And the March 2010 Chilean earthquake that killed more than 500 people accounted for 10% the week of March 1-7.
Since PEJ began the News Coverage Index in January 2007, the flooding in Pakistan ranks as only the 19th biggest week of international disaster coverage. The Haiti earthquake, (41%), easily leads the list.
Mahvish Shahid Khan of PEJ
23% - Percentage of stories about Michelle Obama focused on her overseas trips
Michelle Obama’s recent trip to Spain generated some media attention. Part of that coverage involved critics who argued that she shouldn’t have taken such a lavish vacation at a time when many Americans are struggling economically.
It’s perhaps no surprise that an overseas foray by the First Lady would make news. Since her husband was inaugurated January 20, 2009, almost one quarter (23%) of the stories prominently featuring Michelle Obama have focused on her travels abroad.
The trip that generated the most coverage was her April 2009 visit to Europe and the G-20 Summit. Her fashion style and a reputed faux pas in which the First Lady casually touched the Queen drove the news coverage. Michelle's next biggest news making trip was to Denmark in late September 2009 when she and the president lobbied, unsuccessfully, to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago.
In her 19 months in the White House, Michelle Obama has also made headlines for her role in health-related issues, which accounted for 22% of the stories. Those issues ranged from the legislative battle over health care to her emergence as an advocate in the fight against childhood obesity.
Another cluster of policy issues have accounted for a significant portion of her coverage—17% of the stories. Her involvement with education, racial and gender issues, and better treatment for military families were among the news makers.
She also became enmeshed in the immigration debate when—during a visit to a Maryland school in May 2010—a second grader told her “my mom doesn’t have papers,” in reference to Arizona’s immigration law. Mrs. Obama responded, “We have to fix that, and everybody's got to work together in Congress to make sure that happens."
Another significant category of coverage has been about the Obama family—including everything from their new dog Bo to the purchase of a swing set for Sasha and Malia—which accounted for 9% of the Michelle Obama stories.
Rounding out the top five categories were stories (7%) about the First Lady’s day-to-day activities, such as trips to the farmers' market and an art museum or hosting jazz students and musicians at the White House.
Tricia Sartor of PEJ
10th - Where Elena Kagan’s confirmation ranks among stories the week of August 2-8
August 5, Elena Kagan was confirmed as the 112th justice and fourth woman on the United States Supreme Court by a Senate vote of 63-37. Media coverage of her confirmation, which had never really been in doubt, filled 3% of the newshole studied. That made it the tenth-biggest story the week of August 2-8.
And throughout a confirmation process that lasted nearly three months, Kagan’s path to the High Court proved to be of considerably less interest to the media than that of her predecessor, Sonia Sotomayor.
Let’s start at the beginning. The week that Obama nominated Kagan, that news accounted for 13% of the coverage studied by PEJ; it was the second-biggest story that week (May 10-16, 2010). But news of Sotomayor’s nomination accounted for almost twice as much coverage (24%) and was the top story the week of May 25-31, 2009.
The same pattern held in the week following their nominations. Kagan’s nomination accounted for less than 1% of the newshole studied (May 17-23, 2010). Sotomayor was more than quintuple that, filling 5% of the newshole from June 1-7, 2009.
In an important moment for Kagan’s nomination, her confirmation hearings accounted for 11% of the newshole from June 28-July 4 and represented the third-biggest story that week. But Sotomayor’s hearings, the week of July 13-19 2009, were the No. 1 story at 22% of the newshole.
And while Kagan’s vote in the full Senate was closer, it accounted for 3% of the coverage last week while Sotomayor’s confirmation registered at 5% from August 3-9, 2009. (Sotomayor was confirmed by a vote of 68-31).
Several factors may help explain the differences in media attention. Sotomayor’s nomination was viewed as more historic in that she was the first Hispanic justice on the Court. And ethnic and gender identity were also part of a controversy when some critics accused her of racism in the light of her 2001 statement that she hoped a “wise Latina woman” would reach better conclusions than a “white male.” That fueled extensive coverage on the cable news and talk radio shows that are often driven by ideological hosts. Questions over Kagan’s positions gays in the military and the fact that she had not previously served as a judge did not rise to the same level.
Another reason for the difference might be that much of Kagan’s confirmation process occurred at the same time when another story, the Gulf oil spill, was commanding the press’ attention. A year earlier, when Sotomayor ascended to the bench, there was no such story dominating media resources and coverage.
A study of 175 cities and communities
As the media landscape shifts, so too have newsroom resources. One looming question is where people can find coverage of local news subjects, particularly government and public affairs.
A new comprehensive and highly anticipated university study of local news from communities across the country offers a piece of the answer. The study of 98 major metropolitan cities and 77 suburban communities found that the medium significantly affects how and what local news gets covered--particularly about government. The study funded by the National Science Foundation is one of the broadest based we have seen tackling the question of where government coverage comes from.
Consumers have a wide, growing variety of choices of media today. But the majority of news about local government still comes from newspapers, according to the study by Thomas Baldwin, Daniel Bergan, Frederick G. Fico, Stephen Lacy, and Steven S. Wildman, a team of Michigan State University researchers associated with The Quello Center for Telecommunication Management and Law.
And that is even truer in suburban cities than in larger central metro cities. In suburbs, moreover, most of the news people get about local government comes from weekly papers, not dailies. The medium also made a difference in the level of sourcing and in the diversity of sources offered in news stories. Citizen news sites, while so limited in number that the sample is quite small, had the richest level of sourcing studied and the widest range of types of sources. Daily newspapers came next followed by weekly papers. Citizen blogs had the lowest level of sourcing of any media studied.
These are some of the findings of “News Media Coverage of City Governments in 2009,” which analyzed local news from 389 news outlets serving the 98 central cites and 77 suburban communities from around the country for two days between February 1 and May 2, 2009. The sample drew 6,811 stories and opinion pieces (6,042 from the cities and 769 from the suburbs). The sample included daily and weekly newspapers, broadcast television, cable television news/talk radio, non-news radio, citizen or community news sites, and local citizen blogs.
Among the study's findings:
Newspapers were much more likely to cover government than any other news medium. In big cities, for instance, 53% of the government news stories studied appeared in newspapers. About another third, 36%, appeared on broadcast TV news. Only 5% came on news/talk radio, 2% on citizen news sites and 1% on blogs.
The differences in what different media covered were even more pronounced in suburban communities than in central cities. In the suburbs, 75% of stories related to government came from newspapers, and more of these in the suburbs came from weeklies. In all, indeed, 41.3% of these stories appeared in weeklies and 33.6% in daily papers. The rest of the coverage of suburban government coverage was more scattered. Another 18% of suburban government stories appeared on television and 1% on community news sites.
The sourcing of news varied noticeably by platform. While the sample is small, perhaps because such sites are only now emerging, citizen/community news sites had the richest sourcing of all the media studied. The15 city government news stories found on the news sites in those 176 communities averaged 3.80 sources per story. Daily newspapers came next in the number of sources cited, with 3.09 sources per story, and weekly papers at 2.19. Blogs ranked last, at 0.90.
The ranking by diversity of sources, meaning the average number of different types of sources in a story, was similar though not identical. Citizen news sites had the highest ranges (2.13) followed by daily papers 1.67, but here broadcast television came out ahead of weekly papers (1.40 vs. 1.32).
Each medium had a different top focus. Newspapers focused more than any other topic on local government. Fully 27% of newspaper stories studied focused on government, particularly city government. Television was more focused on crime; 32% of its stories dealt with crimes or courts. The distribution of stories for radio was similar to television (29%). The No. 1 topic on citizen/community news sites, by contrast was human interest (27%).
The volume of local coverage varied widely by medium as well, largely because the number of outlets in each medium varied.
Over the two days studied, the 114 newspapers serving the target communities produced the largest number of local news stories (429). This number does not include opinion pieces. There were 152 local television and cable stations, which produced 363 stories. There were 50 weeklies, which produced 166 stories. And 19 citizen news sites, which produced 25 stories. The 54 radio stations that produced local content produced 87 stories.
In short, the study describes a complex media ecosystem, in which media are not so much duplicative of each other as perhaps complementary. While major stories are likely to appear in many places, much of the day-to-day coverage of government can be found in one medium more than anywhere else, newspapers. Public safety news, such as crimes, accidents and disasters, are a specialty of television and radio, along with weather and traffic. The emerging citizen media may well form their own sense of purpose and specialty. The study, which covered only a short period of time, two selected days, cannot establish what that might be. But with such a breadth of communities involved, the study can establish that the medium does, at least in terms of topic, influence the message.
About the Study
“News Media Coverage of City Governments in 2009” is based on analysis of local news from 389 news outlets serving the 98 central cites and 77 suburban communities from around the country for two days between February 1 and May 2, 2009. The sample drew 6,811 stories and opinion pieces (6,042 from the cities and 769 from the suburbs). The sample included daily and weekly newspapers, broadcast television, cable television news/talk radio, non-news radio, citizen or community news sites, and local citizen blogs. One caveat here is that the data are now a year old, though the study is being released now. Some new media may have evolved since then.
The study examined two days of news and opinion from the day before and the day of a regularly scheduled city council meeting. Selecting these days increased the likelihood that stories would be published about city councils by the various news outlets. The particular city council meeting dates for the cities were randomly selected. The content from the television and radio stations and the citizen journalism sites were downloaded from the Web because of the difficulty of obtaining recordings from 206 stations, and the web is where citizen journalism sites publish. The newspaper content was taken in most cases from the print editions because that is where the majority of local readers still obtain their information. The websites of newspapers might contain some additional content, and the inclusion of that content from the Web might have established the dominance of newspapers to a greater degree, the researchers believe. Still, the fortunes of those new platforms associated with legacy media are hardly immune from whatever happens to the original platform.
Read the complete report.
14% - Percentage of newshole devoted to the Shirley Sherrod saga from July 19-25
The Shirley Sherrod story attracted major media coverage the week of July 19-25. News of how the Department of Agriculture employee was prematurely ousted after an edited video clip surfaced filled 14% of the media newshole, making it the second-biggest story overall that week.
That also makes the Sherrod episode the biggest weekly story involving race relations thus far in 2010. And it is the No. 4 story on that topic since PEJ began the News Coverage Index in 2007.
The single biggest week of race-related coverage occurred from April 8-13, 2007, when a major controversy erupted over talk host Don Imus’s comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Imus referred to the team, the NCAA basketball champs, as “nappy-headed hos,” creating a firestorm that cost him his job.
The next two biggest race stories emerged from the 2008 presidential campaign.
The No. 3 story occurred the week of March 17-23, 2008, when candidate Barack Obama delivered a crucial speech on race after the discovery of videotaped sermons showing his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, making anti-American and inflammatory comments. It filled 17% of the newshole.
The controversy eventually began to fade, but was re-ignited in late April when Wright made a series of high-profile media appearances and Obama spoke more forcefully against his pastor, eventually resigning his membership in the church. Accounting for 18% of the newshole from April 28-May 4, 2008, that was the second-biggest race story.
The fifth-biggest story since 2007 was the arrest of African American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates at his home by a white Cambridge police officer. The saga filled 12% the week of July 20-26, 2009. A new PEJ report also finds that in the first 12 months of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Gates episode constituted the top African American storyline in the media.
Finally, No. 6 was the story of six African American boys from Jena, Louisiana who beat up a white classmate. The case sparked outcries of racial injustice as five of the six adolescents were charged with attempted murder, although that was later reduced to battery. The story—highlighted by a rally led by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton—filled 5% of the newshole from September 16-21, 2007.
Tricia Sartor of PEJ
A Look at How One Video Triggered a Rush to Judgment
At one point during the furor over Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department staffer forced to resign after a video was posted on a conservative website, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the incident was a “teachable moment.”
The episode may or may not serve to foster a broader national discussion on race. But it did open a window on how information and misinformation can careen through the current media ecosystem. Increasingly, supersonic speed predominates and reaction time shrinks. Online posts come in the middle of the night. Commentary and punditry add velocity to stories even before news reports have sorted them out. Partisan players are increasingly becoming news distributors with ties to cable channels and bloggers who follow them closely.
The case also illustrates how in this current media culture, someone can go from obscurity to household name status, and from ostracized to lionized, in a matter of 48 hours. In all, the Sherrod story was the second-biggest topic in the mainstream press last week.
The Sherrod saga began on the morning of July 19 when the conservative website Big Government posted an excerpt of a speech that appeared to show the African-American woman admitting to an NACCP audience she did not do her best to help a white farmer in trouble. The broader backdrop was that the NAACP had recently issued a statement asking the tea party to repudiate the racists in its midst. The proprietor of Big Government, Andrew Breitbart, publicized a video that he said showed that the NAACP itself was racist.
Within hours, the video was picked up in the blogosphere, the administration forced Sherrod to resign and it became a cable talk topic (particularly on Fox).
The narrative abruptly changed the morning of July 20 when Sherrod told her side of the story. Then the full video showed her using the farmer story as an example of how she moved beyond racial issues to help save his farm. Events moved quickly after that. The NAACP, which initially condemned Sherrod’s remarks, declared that it had been fooled by a hoax. On July 21, both Gibbs and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized to Sherrod, who was asked to continue working in the department. And on July 22, Obama spoke to her by phone.
Toward the end of the week, the story began morphing into a broader analysis of race in America, the behavior of the media and the apportioning of blame among parties ranging from the Obama administration to the Fox News Channel.
The chronology that follows traces how the story evolved and played out in the media in that frantic period between the July 19 release of the video and the July 21 apologies to Sherrod from Gibbs and Vilsack as well as Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. It does not purport to capture every item or account of the Sherrod story, but it does outline the arc of how and how quickly the story moved.
Ironically, one message that emerges from the debris of the Sherrod episode is something Breitbart wrote as the first words in the post containing his now controversial video excerpt:
“Context is everything.”
Monday July 19
- At 8:18 a.m., political activist Andrew Breitbart posts on his conservative Big Government website a roughly two-minute video excerpt of USDA official Shirley Sherrod’s March 27, 2010 speech to an NAACP gathering under the headline: “Video Proof: The NAACP Awards Racism—2010.” Breitbart writes that “you will see video evidence of racism coming from a federal employee and NAACP award recipient.” In the clip Sherrod says about a white farmer who came to her for help, “I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do.”
- By early afternoon the blogosphere is alive with talk of the posting. At 12:55 p.m. the conservative Hot Air blog says, “Breitbart announced that he would publish at least one video of the NAACP itself cheering racism. Breitbart delivers on that promise today at Big Government.” At 1:33 p.m., the Gay Patriot blog says, “I love Andrew because he, like me, hates hypocrisy and has a nose to find it.”
- At least one blogger has doubts. In a 3:31 p.m. posting on the website First Things, Elizabeth Scalia worries the Sherrod video clip might not tell the whole story: “I am uncomfortable with this ‘get’ by Breitbart,” she writes. “I want to see the rest of the tape.”
- That evening, the three commercial broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) air no stories on the Sherrod saga during their nightly newscasts.
- In cable prime time there are substantial differences in how the story is handled that first day. MSNBC, with its liberal lineup of hosts, makes no mention at all of the tape, Sherrod, or the story.
- Toward the end of his 8 p.m. Fox News Channel show that was taped earlier in the day, Bill O’Reilly plays the Breitbart video and demands Sherrod’s job: “Well, that is simply unacceptable. And Ms. Sherrod must resign immediately.” (A graphic on the screen reports that Sherrod has already resigned.) This appears to be the first on-air reference to the story on Fox, although the channel’s website, according to one of its anchors and reader comments, had posted it earlier.
- Fox host Sean Hannity opens his 9 p.m. show with the news of Sherrod’s resignation and plays the tape from Big Government. He interviews former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who lauds Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s decision to dismiss her. “You know you can't be a black racist any more than you can be a white racist,” Gingrich says.
- On CNN, during a discussion about the tea party and racism on Larry King’s 9 p.m. show, Dana Loesch, a radio talker who has written for Breitbart, brings up the Sherrod story. She asks why liberals don’t “repudiate” people like Sherrod who Loesch says was admitting she “was basing whether or not she was going to help somebody on the color of their skin.” No one else commented on Sherrod.
- Anderson Cooper’s 10 p.m. show on CNN is focused on the BP oil spill, but the channel plays the video and correspondent Joe Johns reports that Sherrod has resigned her USDA post, quoting Secretary Vilsack’s statement that “there is zero tolerance for discrimination in USDA."
Tuesday July 20
- During CNN’s 6 a.m. “American Morning” show, Shirley Sherrod gives an interview telling her side of the story and asserting that the video misconstrued her remarks about an event that occurred 24 years ago: “I was telling the story about how working with him [the farmer] helped me to see that the issue is not about race, it’s about those who have versus those who do not have.” When asked about losing her job, Sherrod says “the stuff that Fox and the tea party does is scaring the Administration.”
- Around 11 a.m., in another interview with CNN, Sherrod criticizes the NAACP, which had issued a statement condemning her remarks based on the video excerpt. Sherrod also says the administration “harassed me” while she was driving to the office. “I had at least three calls [on July 19] telling me the White House wanted me to resign.” Harris then interviews Eloise Spooner, the wife of the farmer, who calls Sherrod a “good friend” who “helped us save our farm.”
- The idea that the Sherrod video did not tell the whole story is now coursing through the media bloodstream. At 11:21 a.m., blogger Charles Johnson puts up a post headlined: “Resigned USDA Official: Breitbart’s Video Was a Lie.”
- Glenn Beck, on his 5 p.m. Fox program, criticizes the Obama Administration’s and the NAACP’s handing of the Sherrod case and declares; “Here’s my take on Shirley Sherrod. She should not have been fired or forced to resign."
- Reconsidering its position on Sherrod, the NAACP issues a statement that “we have come to the conclusion we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias.” It posts on its website the full Sherrod speech video (43 minutes long), which it says previously “was selectively edited to cast her in a negative light.”
- The three broadcast network evening newscasts (ABC, CBS, NBC) now pick up the story. NBC reports on the farm family’s backing for Sherrod and on the NAACP’s “snookered” statement. CBS reports that Agriculture Secretary Vilsack is still sticking by the Sherrod ouster. ABC also reports on the NAACP’s change of heart while anchor Diane Sawyer calls the episode a “rush to judgment.”
- The MSNBC talk hosts also focus on the story. On his 7 p.m. program, Chris Matthews attacks both the Fox News Channel and Breitbart, declaring the episode “a full dress rehearsal for the bad guys.”
- In an interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity in the 9 p.m. hour, Breitbart says he was motivated to obtain the Sherrod video after the NAACP had condemned "racist elements” in the tea party. Declaring that his main concern is combating allegations of racism against the tea party, Breitbart adds: “I could care less about Shirley Sherrod…This is not about Shirley Sherrod.”
- As the story unfolds, the White House takes fire from the political left. On her 9 p.m. MSNBC show, Rachel Maddow criticizes Fox for its coverage, but blames the Administration for ousting Sherrod based on the “conservative spin about what’s so wrong with you…If you keep falling for this sort of stunt, you are encouraging them."
- In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper during his 10 p.m. program, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous discusses the group’s original statement condemning Sherrod’s remarks, which has been retracted. “We responded quickly [initially] because…we’re called to respond to video evidence all the time, make very quick judgments…Our statement came out at like 1 a.m.”
Wednesday July 21
- Overnight, Breitbart is defending himself. At 1:13 a.m., a post on Big Government says his original video shows the NAACP audience receiving Sherrod’s “tale of racism” with “laughter and cheers…They weren’t cheering redemption. They were cheering discrimination.”
- Early Wednesday morning news surfaces that Vilsack will reconsider Sherrod’s departure. A 3:58 a.m. item on CNN.com quotes a statement from the Agriculture Secretary that, “I am of course willing and will conduct a thorough review and consider additional facts…”
- At 6:13 a.m. liberal writer David Corn, who works for Politics Daily, makes his views about the culpability for the episode known by tweeting: “Vilsack is a Villain in the Sad Tale of Shirley Sherrod.”
- Major apologies come in the afternoon. At his 2:30 press briefing, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, in response to a question, offers the first White House mea culpa. “I think without a doubt Ms. Sherrod is owed an apology. I would do so certainly on behalf of this administration."
- A short time later, Vilsack holds a press conference saying that he, not the White House, decided to force Sherrod’s resignation. He also says he spoke to Sherrod, talked to her about coming back to work and extended my “personal and profound apologies for the pain and discomfort that has been caused to her and to her family over the course of the last several days.”
- At 4:47 p.m. an Associated Press story is one of a number hammering away at the Administration’s handling of the episode, noting that the White House “faced a blast of criticism” over the issue and declaring: “The incident is a stumble for Obama administration and for the NAACP."
- During his 6 p.m. show, liberal MSNBC host Ed Schultz criticizes both the conservative media and the White House. He calls the saga “a manufactured story supplied by a hate merchant [Breitbart]” but adds, “The White House just can’t stand up to Fox News, can they? I think that is the bottom line."
- On Fox News, at 8 p.m., Bill O’Reilly offers a mixed mea culpa. He says, “I owe Ms. Sherrod an apology for not doing my homework, for not putting her remarks into the proper context” when he first aired the video excerpt. But he adds, “Ms. Sherrod may very well see things through a racial prism and did make political statements under the USDA banner…She should be in the private or charity sector.”
- Anderson Cooper begins his 10 p.m. CNN show with a commentary on the situation. “Cable news is part of the problem. There's no doubt about that. The left and the right have their own anchors who only report on the stories that suit their slant,” he says. He declares that watching Breitbart “try to weasel his way out of taking responsibility for what he did to Ms. Sherrod today is a classic example of what's wrong with our national discourse.”
Thursday July 22 and Beyond
- An editorial in the July 22 New York Times provides further evidence of a media narrative turning against the Administration. Headlined “Faster than a Speeding Blog,” the editorial says, “The Obama administration has been shamed by its rush to judgment after it forced the resignation of a black midlevel official in the Agriculture Department who was wrongly accused of racism by the right-wing blogosphere."
- Sherrod, by now a major figure in the week’s news, makes the rounds on the network morning news shows July 22. On NBC’s Today show she says she would like to have a “conversation” with Obama to help him understand “the experiences [of people] at the grassroot level.” She also expresses her view that Breitbart “knew his actions would take Shirley Sherrod down.” On the CBS Early Show she says she would “definitely consider” suing Breitbart and is unsure whether she wants to take up Vilsack’s offer to work on civil rights issues in the USDA. “I would not like to be the one person that this country is looking at to solve all of the problems of discrimination within the Department of Agriculture,” she says.
- Shortly after noon on July 22, President Obama reaches Sherrod by phone. According to a White House statement, the conversation lasts seven minutes, and “the President expressed to Ms. Sherrod his regret about the events of the last several days.”
- By now, with the Sherrod saga finally slowing down, the press begins its post-mortems. One aspect focuses on the role of the media themselves. In a July 22 discussion of the Sherrod case on the Politico, conservative commentator and Breitbart critic David Frum, says, “We live in an intensely competitive media environment where, more and more, people want their information refracted through a political site, where there is a dwindling market share for news that offers itself as objective and reliable.”
- At 2:06 a.m. on July 23, the Big Government site posts an item from a leading figure in conservative talk radio headlined: “Rush: ‘Breitbart was Exactly Right.’” The post includes an excerpt of Rush Limbaugh saying, “If you listen to the whole speech as people have, forty-three minutes, she’s racist. The NAACP is racist.”
- A July 23 New York Times piece examines the subject of race and the Sherrod story, declaring that “No matter how hard his White House tries to keep the issue [of race] from defining [Obama’s] presidency, it keeps popping back up, fueled in part by high expectations from the left for the first black president, and in part by tactical opposition politics on the right.” Indeed, this story moved so fast, driven by cable and the web, that print editions of newspapers were often left to analyze the events.
- In some conservative circles, one emerging theme is criticism of the media’s treatment of Sherrod as the protagonist in the story. A July 23 post on the Big Government site decries the mainstream media’s “hypocritical sanctimony surrounding Shirley Sherrod.”
- In a July 23 interview on ABC’s Good Morning America, Obama offers his analysis, saying that Vilsack “jumped the gun” on initially ousting Sherrod partly because “we now live in this media culture where something goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles.”
Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ
The fallout from the firing of Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod and the one-year anniversary of the controversial arrest of African American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., have put race back in the news. How much coverage do African Americans receive? What role did race play in coverage of the Obama Administration? A new study examining media coverage of African Americans in the first year of the Obama presidency offers answers.
Media, Race and Obama’s First Year