Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Stormy weather

Yesterday morning I flipped through the channels of cable news—CNN, Fox, CNN Headlines, MSNBC—and was struck by the lack of coverage of any topic other than Hurricane Dean and dog-basher Michael Vick's plea bargain.

A little fantasy popped into my head of what George Bush's morning news summaries must be like: "Good news today, sir. A bridge has collapsed in Minnesota." "Good news today. There's a mine cave-in in Utah." "Good news today. There's a hurricane headed for Texas." No Iraq. No Afghanistan. No mention of the documents that Cheney, along with the White House, say they're withholding from Congress. From the Cheney-Bush viewpoint, a totally satisfying media experience.

Always the self-doubter I wondered, "Is it just me?" It turns out it wasn't. The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) has just released its quarterly report on its News Coverage Index, which—

includes an examination of 18,010 stories that appeared between April 1, 2007 and June 29, 2007. The Index encompasses 13 newspapers, eight radio outlets (a mix of talk, public radio, and headline feeds), five of the top online sites, several hours a day of all three cable news channels and both network morning and evening newscast [48 different outlets]; we believe it to be the most comprehensive ongoing audit of the American press conducted. The data for the year to date includes 35,426 stories.

Across all media PEJ concludes—

The 2008 Presidential campaign—with its crowded field and accelerated timetable—emerged as the leading story in the American news media in the second quarter of 2007, supplanting the policy debate over Iraq. And the once lopsided gap favoring Democrats over Republicans in campaign coverage became more balanced, according to a new study of the U.S. media.

Another major change in the period from April through June of 2007 was that press coverage of the war in Iraq declined markedly. Together the three major storylines of the war—the policy debate, events on the ground, and the impact on the U.S. homefront—filled 15% of the total newshole in the quarter, a drop of roughly a third from the first three months of the year, when it filled 22%.

In more detail they note—

.... The bulk of the decline occurred after May 24, when Congress approved funding without including troop withdrawal timetables, a move widely viewed as a White House victory. In all, the policy debate filled 7% of the space or airtime in the quarter, down from 12% in the three months of the year.

Would we be wrong to conclude that with the help of the Democrats the White House gained a victory not only over war policy but also over the media message?

There continue to be clear differences in the news judgments of different cable channels. As in the first quarter, the Fox News Channel devoted roughly half as much coverage to the war (8%) than its rivals, CNN (18%) and MSNBC (15%)....

No surprise there. But you should know that Fox has more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined.

Although the PEJ report covered the period ending June 29, I see no reason to believe that the downward trend of coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan won't continue, though of course General Petraeus' report to Congress in September should produce a blip on the media radar. (The White House has been trying to have Petraeus present his report in closed sessions of the various committees, better to stanch the flow of news.)

Taken altogether, hurricane season at the White House is a favorite time of year—at least till the next Katrina.


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