Broadcasting from Baghdad on March 6, NBC’s Brian Williams introduced his first story by connecting events in the Iraqi capital to a verdict in a Washington courtroom about 6,000 miles away.
Former vice presidential aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby, he declared solemnly, had been convicted of perjury and obstruction “in a case that has to do with the very underpinnings of this war here in Iraq.” In an instant, on NBC and elsewhere, the Libby verdict was transformed into a story about the rationale for the war.
Ever since President Bush announced his troop “surge” on January 10, the war in Iraq has dominated the news as measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index. Specifically, it was the fierce political debate over strategy in Congress that has commanded the most attention. The debate over the war has finished first or second in the Index’s top story list for eight straight weeks, from early January to early March.
But last week, even as Congressional Democrats fine-tuned their anti-surge tactics, the policy debate slipped to its lowest spot of the year, down into to fifth place (at 7%). Instead, two events that offered different and relatively newer angles into the contentious issues surrounding Iraq trumped the political argument over what war strategy would best serve America’s interests.
One was the Libby verdict. It was the biggest story last week, filling 13% of the overall newshole from March 4 to March 9.
Libby “was a leading voice, if not the leading voice in the bureaucracy in the run up to war, the whole case for the war,” noted Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe on Tucker Carlson’s March 7 MSNBC show.
The second war-related subject that offered a different perspective on Iraq was the expanding examination of problems with the care of wounded vets. The war at home was the fourth biggest subject of the week (at 7%). A major story since the Washington Post’s February 18-19 expose on Walter Reed Army Hospital, this was the third week in a row that the treatment of vets held a top spot in the news agenda, after weeks in which the homefront was something of a media afterthought. The story has broadened far beyond the situation at Walter Reed.
Events inside Iraq itself finished as the third-biggest subject last week (at 8%), meaning that four of the top five stories were about the war.
The lone exception was the No. 2 story of the week, the 2008 Presidential race (9%), which was fueled by Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s dueling March 4 appearances in Selma, Alabama.
And Anna Nicole Smith, who died on February 8, finally dropped off the radar screen last week, trumped by another tabloid tempest, one likely to be even more short-lived.
PEJ’s News Coverage Index is a study of the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. (See a List of Outlets.) It is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. (See Our Methodology.)
While pols on both sides of the Iraq debate are rushing to condemn the problems at Walter Reed and vowing reform, the underlying issue can be politically tricky. Backers of the “surge” in Iraq have made support for the troops a linchpin of that policy. And pro-withdrawal forces are trying to emphasize their concern for the troops as they distance themselves from U.S. policy. Moreover, the stories of wounded vets denied adequate care seem to be resonating with the public.
On the March 5 CBS newscast, Katie Couric described the “national outrage over the treatment of America’s wounded,” as the show segued into the dramatic Congressional testimony of Annette McLeod, wife of a wounded National Guardsman.
“This is how we treat our soldiers, we give them nothing,” said McLeod, fighting back tears. “But they’re good enough to sacrifice their life and we give them nothing.”
The wounded vets and Libby stories took different routes to the top tier of news subjects last week. Since the Libby trial got underway in late January, it has been a steady but low-intensity top 10 story, regularly generating 3% to 4% of the overall weekly coverage, with the exception of last week’s Index, when it dropped to 1%. Throughout the trial, it did best in radio and cable, generating 6% of the coverage in those sectors.
That all changed with the verdict last week, when the story gained volume and a theme. Representative of the tone was this March 7 headline in The Bakersfield Californian: “Verdict a blow to Bush: Trial revealed Cheney’s role in attacks against Iraq critics.” But even with premature speculation about the President pardoning Libby to feed coverage, the story tapered off noticeably throughout the course of the week.
Since the Index launched at the beginning of the year, the Iraq homefront category had never generated more than 3% of the weekly coverage and frequently failed to make the top 10 story list. But ever since the Post’s investigative coup on Walter Reed in late February, it’s been one of the five biggest stories each week. (Last week, it did best on network TV, filling 12% of the airtime.)
What started as a story about bureaucratic mismanagement at Walter Reed has spread to include a major political component—and last week Bush moved quickly to appoint Donna Shalala and Bob Dole to head a commission on the subject. But it’s also broadened the focus to problems in the entire military heath care system and isn’t likely to fade from view any time soon. (On March 12, the news broke that the Army’s top medical officer, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, had lost his job as a result of the Walter Reed revelations.)
“The scandal is far from over,” warned NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski on the March 6 “Today” show.
Two of the other top stories last week also didn’t translate into particularly good news for the administration. Coverage of the President’s trip to Latin America (sixth place at 3%) included a number of reports about the anti-Bush protests that erupted in Brazil and Argentina. The seventh biggest story (at 2%) was a potentially burgeoning scandal—allegations that the firing of some U.S. attorneys was politically motivated—that generated Congressional hearings last week. Still, those proceedings were largely drowned out by the focus on Iraq.
And finally dropping beneath the media’s radar screen—or maybe just temporarily exhausting itself—is the tawdry Anna Nicole saga. After four weeks in a row as a top-10 story, the various legal battles surrounding the death of the blonde bombshell consumed less than 1% of the overall newshole last week.
For the record, the Smith story finished just behind another tabloid tale involving a quasi-celebrity—the controversy over racy Internet photos of “American Idol” contestant Antonella Barba.
Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ