February 3, 2011

Bloggers Focus on a Supreme Court Justice and Social Security

PEJ New Media Index January 24-28, 2011

Last week was one of those that highlighted the divergent news agendas of the mainstream and online media. While two stories—unrest in the Middle East and President Obama’s State of the Union address—dominated coverage in the traditional press, bloggers and Twitter users opted for very different topics.

In the blogosphere, the No. 1 linked-to story from January 24-28 was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ failure to report his wife’s earnings over a five-year period, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Drawing 14% of the links, bloggers were highly critical of Thomas, accusing him of a double standard after the watchdog group Common Cause charged that he had failed to report his wife’s earnings of $680,000 from the conservative Heritage Foundation. Even though Thomas later admitted the error and amended his financial statements, critics took joy in needling the controversial judge. 

Another major story, with 11% of the links, involved U.S. economics. Most of the attention focused on a Washington Post report claiming Obama was unlikely to support his deficit commission’s controversial proposals regarding Social Security—such as raising the retirement age or reducing the program’s benefits. Bloggers gave more of a mixed verdict here. Many supported Obama’s view for both political and policy reasons. Others, however, criticized Obama for being unwilling to take important steps to secure the country’s economic future. 

Also at 11% was a Los Angeles Times story about two teenagers found dead in an apartment alongside an empty can of the caffeinated alcohol drink known as Four Loko, which has been banned in some states. Although it was not immediately clear if the drink was the cause of the deaths, concerns about its safety were enough to raise questions about the role it may have played.

At No. 4, with 10%, was a BBC story about a polar bear that swam for more than nine days in search of sea ice. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey suggested that this journey provided more evidence of global climate change.

The fifth story (at 9%), was another BBC report, this one about the firing of British sports announcer Andy Gray due to allegations of sexist and improper behavior.

The turmoil in Egypt did not register as a major social media topic in the sample studied by PEJ last week. It did, however, rank as the seventh-biggest story among users of Twitter, a platform that has been extensively used to share information about such events as the 2009 protests in Iran and the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Despite attempts by the Egyptian government to block access to Twitter within their country, users posted images, links, and other pieces of information about the uprising from the outside. In the blogosphere, interest in the situation in Egypt seemed to pick up by the weekend, a period not included in this report.


Other stories linked-to on Twitter last week involved the web and technology, including disagreement over the value of news and information online.

The No. 1 story (14% of the news links) was a TechCrunch piece by Paul Carr defending AOL against criticism in a recent New Yorker story that the company relies too heavily on technology and not enough on journalists, resulting in poor news quality and selection. Carr wrote that AOL’s news judgment is no different than other major internet news sources because most consumers want dumbed-down content about salacious subjects.

The second-largest subject (at 13%) was a follow-up to a story that was popular the previous week. On January 21, Google announced that the removal of the RSS reader option from Gmail was a mistake. That came after users voiced their displeasure with the action, and Google’s subsequent response proved to be another example of the impact that an explosion of opinion online can have on a major company.

At No. 3 (12%) was news that a team of British engineers are planning to send a mobile phone into space to see if today’s products are able to function in such an environment.

A TechCrunch report about Obama’s decision to appoint General Electric’s chief executive, Jeff Immelt, as chairman of his panel of economic advisors was the fourth subject at 11%. The author, Lora Kolodny, wondered if Immelt’s support for carbon cap-and-trade was a positive sign for proponents of green technology.

And the arrest of five men between the ages of 15 and 26 for launching web attacks in support of WikiLeaks against companies such as PayPal, Mastercard and Amazon was fifth at 10%.

Thomas and Disclosure

News that Clarence Thomas had failed to include more than half a million dollars of his wife’s income on financial disclosure statements brought charges of hypocrisy.

“Judicial dirtbaggery at its finest and more evidence that highly ranked government officials play by a separate rule book,” complained Jim at Zwinglius Redivivus. “A book that, were you and I to live by, we would find ourselves in serious hot water.”

“Thomas has argued in the past that he believes the requirement to disclose large political contributions are unconstitutional,” pointed out Ted McLaughlin at jobsanger. “It looks like he has decided that his personal beliefs are more important than federal law, and he’s going to hide some of his family finances regardless of what the law says.”*

Some wondered if this error was intentional.

“I actually didn’t know that ‘the Supreme Court is ‘the only judicial body in the country that is not governed by a set of judicial ethical rules. It appears that they could use one,” wrote microdot at the Brain Police. “I mean it’s difficult to see how this could possibly be an inadvertent omission by Clarence Thomas. Seriously, did he forget Ginni was his wife?” 

And a few bloggers used the opportunity to criticize the conservative Thomas, with references to his highly charged confirmation hearings.

“Thomas has never been one to honor ethics,” asserted David M. Pittle at Marine Progressive.  “He harassed women, took bribes of gifts from corporate sources…and now has failed to report income from a source that clearly biases his decisions.” 

“My accountant says if you make less than $150,000 a year you can forget about filing taxes this year. Amateur porn enthusiast and professional legal guy Clarence Thomas says it’s o.k.,” declared Kirby at I Make No Promises.  “And really, who knows more about the law than a Supreme Court Justice? No one, that’s who.”

Social Security

A passionate online discussion was sparked by a Washington Post article—leading up to Obama’s January 25 State of the Union address—predicting that Obama would not endorse his deficit commission’s recommendations to either raise the retirement age or reduce Social Security benefits.

Some bloggers applauded Obama’s reported reluctance to alter the program because it was good policy.

“At a time when people are hurting economically, when food prices are rising, housing prices continue to tank and gas prices going through the roof, lowering social security benefits shouldn’t be an option. It really shouldn’t EVER be an option,” declared Mountain Sage. “The government needs to take its greedy paws out of the social security piggy bank and make sure it’s solvent.”

Others supported it for political reasons.

“Preserving Social Security is one of those rare instances where the right thing to do and the popular thing to do intersect, even 60% of Republicans don’t want to see cuts,” wrote Desperado at The Daily Hurricane. “Making that contrast clear also has strong political advantages for a president with an eye on re-election.”

Critics, however, argued that Obama was ignoring economic realities and afraid to make tough choices.

“President Obama claims to be worried about the deficit, but when faced with a serious opportunity to do something about, kicks the can down the road,” stated Where Are My Keys? “Very soon, someone has to give this Country a dose of ‘tough love’, for the good of its citizens.  At this point in his Presidency, Obama is choosing not to be that guy. He’s instead making the choice to play politics, and trying and get re-elected.”

“This is the public policy equivalent of a gangrene patient opting to not take antibiotics and other nutritional improvements,” analogized Not a Potted Plant. “Social Security won’t get better on its own. The budget won’t get better on its own. We have to cut, something, at some point. The sooner we do it, the less painful it’s going to be.”


The most viewed news clip on YouTube last week was the most recent episode of the first-person YouTube series The Philip Defranco show. The weblogs, known for their jump cuts and close-up view of its host, consist of Defranco’s take on current events including politics and pop culture.

The second most viewed video was a segment from the June 9, 2010, edition of Glenn Beck’s Fox News Channel show. The 22-second clip includes Beck’s discussion of radicals when he says, “They believe and have called for a revolution. You’re going to have to shoot them in the head. But warning, they may shoot you."

The clip has been spread widely across the web in the wake of the January 8 shootings in Arizona which severely injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, killed six others and sparked a national conversation about vitriolic political rhetoric. Some liberals have decried the language used by conservative talk-show hosts such as Beck and see this statement as an example of what they call “hate speech.” (A transcript of the entire show is available here.)

Beck and his supporters claim that the clip has been taken out of context and that he was warning against radical leftists who have called for a violent revolution.


Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube
For the Week of January 22-28, 2011

1.  The January 19 edition of the Philip Defranco show

2.   A controversial segment from the Glenn Beck show originally broadcast on June 9, 2010

3.   Comedian Ricky Gervais discusses his views on religion and atheism on the January 20 edition of CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight

4.   An interview in Spanish conducted by Mexican journalist Carlos Loret

5.   Another version of Loret’s interview which has since been removed from YouTube


The New Media Index is a weekly report that captures the leading commentary of blogs and social media sites focused on news and compares those subjects to that of the mainstream press.

PEJ’s New Media Index is a companion to its weekly News Coverage Index. Blogs and other new media are an important part of creating today’s news information narrative and in shaping the way Americans interact with the news. The expansion of online blogs and other social media sites has allowed news-consumers and others outside the mainstream press to have more of a role in agenda setting, dissemination and interpretation. PEJ aims to find out what subjects in the national news the online sites focus on, and how that compared with the narrative in the traditional press.

A prominent Web tracking site Icerocket, which monitors millions of blogs, uses the links to articles embedded on these sites as a proxy for determining what these subjects are. Using this tracking process as a base, PEJ staff compiles the lists of links weekday each day. They capture the top five linked-to stories on each list (25 stories each week), and reads, watches or listens to these posts and conducts a content analysis of their subject matter, just as it does for the mainstream press in its weekly News Coverage Index. It follows the same coding methodology as that of the NCI. Note: When the NMI was launched in January 2009, another web-tracking site Technorati was similarly monitoring blogs and social media. PEJ originally captured both Technorati’s and Icerocket’s daily aggregation. In recent months, though, this component of Technorati’s site has been down with no indication of when it might resume. 

The priorities of the bloggers are measured in terms of percentage of links. Each time a news blog or social media Web page adds a link to its site directing its readers to a news story, it suggests that the author of the blog places at least some importance on the content of that article. The user may or may not agree with the contents of the article, but they feel it is important enough to draw the reader’s attention to it. PEJ measures the topics that are of most interest to bloggers by compiling the quantitative information on links and analyzing the results.

For the examination of the links from Twitter, PEJ staff monitors the tracking site Tweetmeme. Similar to Icerocket, Tweetmeme measures the number of times a link to a particular story or blog post is tweeted and retweeted. Then, as we do with Icerocket, PEJ captures the five most popular linked-to pages each weekday under the heading of "news" as determined by Tweetmeme’s method of categorization. And as with the other data provided in the NMI, the top stories are determined in terms of percentage of links. (One minor difference is that Tweetmeme offers the top links over the prior 24 hours while the list used on Icerocket offers the top links over the previous 48 hours.)

The Project also tracks the most popular news videos on YouTube each week.

*For the sake of authenticity, PEJ has a policy of not correcting misspellings or grammatical errors that appear in direct quotes from blog postings.

Note: PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index includes Sunday newspapers while the New Media Index is Monday through Friday.