November 25, 2008

Shifting Gears: Auto Bailouts and the Obama Transition Lead the News

by Paul Hitlin, Content Supervisor, and Tricia Sartor, Weekly News Index Manager, Project for Excellence in Journalism

Two questions drove last week’s media coverage. First, should the government offer a financial bailout to the hurting American auto industry? Second, what do the appointments to his cabinet say about how President-elect Obama will govern?

Taken together, the country’s financial crisis, and the auto industry’s troubles in particular, amounted to the largest topic of media coverage for the week of Nov. 17-23. The transition plans for the new Obama administration followed, and together they accounted for more than half of the media’s attention last week.

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But while no other media stories came close to rivaling these major narratives, one new sensational storyline did emerge at the top of the media last week — Somali piracy. And two familiar plot lines returned to the media agenda, another dramatic round of California wildfires and a milestone agreement reached by the Iraqi government that garnered relatively little media coverage.

These are among the findings of the News Coverage Index for Nov. 17-23, a weekly study of the media agenda from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The Economic Crisis

The country’s ailing economy was the largest story in the news last week, filling 32% of the overall newshole. The financial crisis had two distinct but entangled components to the plot last week. First, the continuing fallout and follow-up to the government’s financial bailout of the private banking industry. Last week, that storyline filled 17% of the newshole. Second was the question of whether the auto industry should receive similar assistance, which filled another 15%.

The banking bailout reemerged as a storyline in part because of hearings on Capitol Hill and the volatility of the stock market, which dropped more than 200 points for the week. That was fueled in part by troubles at Citigroup, one of the nation’s largest banks, and by comments from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson while testifying on Capitol Hill with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

When they announced they would no longer use federal bailout money to buy toxic securities, as originally proposed, the change of direction drew criticism in Washington and on Wall Street. Rep. Gary Ackerman, a Democrat from New York, shot back in the hearing, “You seem to be flying a $700-billion plane by the seat of your pants. It seems to be the second-largest bait-and-switch scheme that history has ever seen, second only to the reasons given to us to vote for the invasion of Iraq.”

The auto industry was a major story all week, and gained force when Democrats in Congress proposed a $25-billion bailout package for U.S. automakers early in the week, and President-elect Obama showed support for taking some action in his Nov. 16 interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes, but not “a blank check.”

“For the auto industry to completely collapse would be a disaster in this kind of environment, not just for individual families but the repercussions across the economy would be dire,” said Obama.

Much of the media narrative revolved around whether the government should bail out automakers, whose problems are not so closely tied to the current financial crisis and whose managers have failed to address long-term problems for years.

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A good portion of the coverage involved the back-and-forth arguments. The argument for a bailout tended to follow reasoning that allowing the auto industry to go bankrupt would have dire consequences for an already struggling economy. “The Big Three automakers employ about 240,000 workers. Add to that the many suppliers that are connected to the auto industry, and that’s 2.3 million Americans, 2% of the nation’s workforce,” ABC’s Bianna Golodryga reported on Tuesday’s “Good Morning America.” By some counts, she calculated “one out of every 10 jobs in the U.S. relies on this industry.”

The arguments against ranged from fears of too much government involvement to the idea that actual bankruptcy court proceedings would help the companies more. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney told NBC’s “Today” on Thursday, Nov. 20, that he favored conventional court supervised bankruptcy. “If you write a check they’re going to go out of business. If, instead, you help them restructure, you make them cost-competitive with the Japanese, they can stay in business virtually forever. And so this is a time, an opportunity for us to help these companies shed their excess costs so they can stay in business.”

Others were less nuanced. “No federal money for the car companies!” Bill O’Reilly began his show on Wednesday. He went on to blame the inflexibility of the labor unions for much of the car industry’s problems and asserted that supporters of the unions and the bailout, such as Rep. Barney Frank, were pushing a “socialist vision” that is wreaking havoc on the American economy.

The debate came to a head with the dramatic testimony of the CEOs of the three major U.S. automakers in front of Congress on Tuesday. The New York Times headline captured the sense of the hearings: “Detroit Chiefs Plead for Aid, To Little Avail.”

The sessions became confrontational at times. Many congressmen wanted to voice what they called the frustration of their constituents. Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby asked, will this money “be used to improve their business model and product lines, or is this just life support?” Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) added, “Their discomfort in coming to the Congress with hat in hand is only exceeded by the fact that they are seeking treatment for wounds that are to a large extent self-inflicted.”

The hearings found a flash point in the fact that all three CEOs had flown separate private jets to Washington, D.C. “If you’re saying your company’s in financial trouble and you’re saying you’re cutting back to try to make ends meet, why fly here in a private jet at a cost of up to $20,000?” CNN correspondent Joe Johns asked rhetorically on the Wednesday edition of Campbell Brown’s prime time program “No Bias No Bull.”

Transition Watch

If the economy was the crisis of the moment, the transition to a new presidency was the context in which the events unfolded. Overall, the transition filled 23% of the media newshole, about the same amount as it had filled the previous week (24%).

But if the story of the transition began with signals from Obama about the economic crisis, more of the week was dominated by leaks involving his possible appointments. There were even stories by the end of the week about how the leak-free Obama camp was now leaking.

Friday afternoon featured multiple reports that the Obama transition team had decided on some key cabinet appointments not yet announced. More than half of the coverage relating to Obama’s transition was focused on his appointments and speculation as to what his appointments said about his governing style. Most notably were reports that seemingly ended the week-long speculation as to whether Obama’s Democratic rival for the nomination, Hillary Clinton, would accept the job as secretary of state.

Prior to Friday’s news, there were few official announcements coming from the Obama team. Many suggested he had decided on a few posts, such as Eric Holder as attorney general, but since little had been formally announced, much of the news coverage revolved around rumors and speculation. In particular, many pundits debated what the rumored appointments would suggest about Obama’s governing style.

Some critics suggested Obama was looking too much toward veterans from the Clinton administration and that by doing so he was not offering the change he had promised during the campaign. Eric Holder had been a top justice department aide during the Clinton administration. And of course former First Lady Hillary Clinton would be an even closer link.

On Fox News, Sean Hannity opened his Tuesday interview with Rep. Michelle Bachmann by asking, “Hillary [as] secretary of state, now we got Eric Holder here, now we got the Marc Rich pardon, now we got every Clinton scandal coming into play. Do you see this as change?” (Bachmann agreed it was not.)

From the left, columnist Christopher Hitchens appeared on Tuesday’s edition of MSNBC’s new “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” program and criticized both the Holder choice and the likely Clinton appointment. Hitchens was particularly harsh on Clinton by saying, “If there was some foreign policy experience or brilliance Hillary Clinton had ever shown, maybe we would overlook the fact that she and her husband have never met a foreign political donor they don’t like … but I don’t know of any such expertise on her part except her pretense to have been under fire in Bosnia when she had not.”

Another clear theme in the media narrative was the suggestion that Obama’s picks meant he wanted to surround himself with strong-minded individuals who did not agree with him on every issue. This, as Andrea Mitchell reported on Monday’s Today Show, was a lesson learned from reading about Abraham Lincoln who had reached out to his former rivals.

Chris Matthews even suggested on Tuesday’s “Hardball” that part of the “unity” and “change” message that Obama was carrying out meant forgiving and accepting, and that the appointment of his former rival, Clinton, and the reluctance to condemn Joe Lieberman for campaigning against him was part of the actual change he was bringing to Washington. “[Unity] means dealing with people who were against you and hurt you,” Matthews suggested. “Is this something bigger than we’re used to?”

A public part of that reconciliation took place on Monday when Obama held a meeting with Sen. John McCain, the man he had recently defeated. While the talk was of reconciliation and cooperation, much of the media’s focus was on the body language and uncomfortable nature of the occasion. On CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” Ed Henry noted how McCain and Obama discussed controversial issues they plan to work together on including immigration and closing Guantanamo Bay. “Those are hot-button issues that will be hard to find common ground,” Henry reported. “Especially since the body language suggested it would not be easy to heal their divisions. This moment had awkward written all over it.”

Newsmakers of the Week

Three of the top four newsmakers of the week, not including Obama, were tied to the president-elect. The speculation about whether Hillary Clinton would be named secretary of state made her the lead newsmaker in 3% of the stories for the week. Eric Holder, Obama’s pick for attorney general, was 2nd at 2%. Joe Lieberman, who faced retribution for supporting McCain but ultimately got to keep his committee chairmanship in the Senate, was 4th. (Obama, who dominated all others, was the top newsmaker in 8% of all the stories last week).

One other political figure also made big news last week, but he was the only major one who wasn’t connected to the new administration. The 3rd leading newsmaker was Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who officially lost his bid for reelection after the vote count was concluded on Nov. 19. Stevens had been a controversial figure because he had been convicted just a few weeks before the election of seven counts of failing to report gifts he received as an elected official.

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The Rest of the Week’s News

After the two major storylines of the week — the economy and the new Obama administration — no other topics garnered more than 3% of the week’s newshole.

The No. 4 storyline (at 3%) brought back a term that seemed to elicit thoughts of crimes from previous centuries. Pirates have attacked an estimated 80 ships this year near the coast of Somalia, and even though the crimes are quite serious, much of the news coverage could not help but utilize pop culture imagery of previous pirates. On the Nov. 19 Today Show, their story included footage from movies such as “Pirates of the Caribbean,” while reporter Dawna Friesen stated, “Though the swashbuckling of Hollywood is hardly the style of modern pirates, the objective is the same: money.”

The No. 5 story of the week was the wildfires in southern California that burned 40,000 acres in about four days and destroyed hundreds of homes. It also filled 3% of the newshole.

Stories No. 6 and 7 were both related to Congress. Story No. 6 was about the workings of the new 111th Congress which will come to session in January. Much of that coverage was focused on Sen. Joe Lieberman and whether he would keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee. The No. 7 story focused on the Congressional election results in the three states, Alaska, Minnesota, and Georgia, that were still in the process of being resolved.

The No. 8 story of the week may be more memorable for how little noticed it was. On Sunday, Nov. 16, Iraq’s cabinet overwhelmingly approved a proposed security agreement that was negotiated with the United States and calls for a complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. The agreement led to violent protests in Iraq.

There was a time, not that long ago, when the formal agreement to a deadline for U.S. withdrawal form Iraq might have conceivably dominated the American news agenda. No longer. Last week, driven by the security agreement for Iraq, events in Iraq was the No. 8 story of the week and filled 2% of the newshole.

About the NCI

PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index examines the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media: print, online, network TV, cable and radio. The weekly study, which includes some 1,300 stories, is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of that media narrative and differences among news platforms. The percentages are based on “newshole,” or the space devoted to each subject in print and online and time on radio and TV. In addition, these reports also include a rundown of the week’s leading newsmakers, a designation given to people or institutions who account for at least 50% of a given story.

Learn more about the NCI, including a list of outlets and methodology, at journalism.org.