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A Message From Osama Puts Terror in the News

PEJ News Coverage Index Sept. 2 – 7, 2007

The opening moments of the Sept. 7 “CBS Evening News” offered a jarring image. It was the world’s most-wanted man, the leader of Al-Qaeda—complete with his familiar white hat and now a surprisingly dark beard—delivering his latest message to America.

“He’s still alive,” anchor Katie Couric intoned. “Osama bin Laden. The most wanted terrorist in the world breaks his silence to mark the sixth anniversary of the attack on America.”

The bin Laden video tape was only one grim reminder about life in the post-9/11 world last week. A string of what in another time might have seemed disconnected stories also broke, revealing just how powerful a subtext fear about domestic terrorism has become in the news media. A sense of underlying anxiety about safety seems to permeate the news like the hole in the ozone, a threat of underdetermined but profound implications.

Three days before the bin Laden tape, on Sept. 4, anti-terrorism police arrested three suspects—reportedly connected with Al-Qaeda—plotting what news accounts called a “potentially massive” attack against U.S. targets in Germany.

The worrisome news continued when the General Accountability Office released a report last week critical of many of the nation’s security efforts. “Blistering criticism in this country tonight,” declared CNN’s Lou Dobbs on his Sept. 6 program. “Congressional investigators say the Homeland Security Department has failed to meet many of its performance targets nearly six years after the Sept. 11 attacks.”

To rattle the nerves further, a story has been circulating that authorities are looking for two men who were seen acting suspiciously aboard a Seattle ferry. Hosting CNN’s “Out in the Open” on Sept. 4, Rick Sanchez displayed a photograph of the two dark-haired “Seattle Mystery Men,” described them as “acting bizarre,” and announced that “the FBI wants to know where they are.”

Together, the three threads of the terrorist threat were enough to be the third-biggest story of last week, filling about 12% of all the coverage from Sept. 2-7, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index. Only the debate over Iraq, on the eve of General David Petraeus’ eagerly anticipated report on the situation there, and the 2008 presidential campaign that just attracted another major candidate, were bigger news.

But the most intriguing thing may be how the terrorist threat is made up of small stories that hover and unnerve, not necessarily a single event.

Although it was only a two-day story last week—with word of a new video first surfacing on Sept. 6—bin Laden’s appearance was the fifth biggest story, filling 5% of the newshole. The foiling of the German terror plot was the sixth-top story (4%). And the broader subject of U.S. domestic terror—which included stories about the harsh GAO report and the Seattle ferry suspects—was the eighth-biggest story at 3%.

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.)

The Iraq policy debate finished first (17%) overall and was the top story among the newspaper (16%), network (22%), and radio (21%) sectors. Coverage was dominated by several developments—most notably President Bush’s surprise trip to Iraq—designed to help influence the mood and discussion in Washington in advance of this week’s critical progress report from General Petraeus. Meanwhile, events on the ground inside Iraq constituted the fourth-biggest story, at 5% of the newshole.

The 2008 presidential race, which last week included a GOP debate in New Hampshire and Fred Thompson’s long-awaited campaign entrance, was the #2 story at 12%. (It was first on cable, filling 18% of the airtime.) And the continuing saga of Senator Larry Craig—who seemed to be reconsidering the resignation that followed the news of his arrest in an airport bathroom—was the third-biggest story at 7%.

Some time has passed since those harrowing post-9/11 days of anthrax scares, ever-changing color-coded threats, and regular reports of “heightened chatter” among terrorist operatives. The subject does not dominate news nor constantly jangle nerves as it did in the immediate aftermath of the attacks in New York and Washington. But, as last week proved, the release of a new bin Laden video still packs a potent visceral punch. And the threat from jihadists remains a substantial part of the mainstream news diet and a subject constantly simmering at the surface of media and public consciousness.

Although there have been no attacks on U.S. soil, stories about terrorism—ranging from the foiled car bomb plot in London to intelligence reports warning about a reinvigorated Al-Qaeda—have made the weekly list of top-five stories nine weeks in 2007. And in a summer in which Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he had a “gut feeling” about an increased threat to the U.S., terrorism issues and fears have made the top-five list in seven different weeks.

Terror’s continued presence in the headlines—and inside our national psyche—may help explain one dynamic the 2008 Presidential race to date. With last week’s entrance by Fred Thompson, much of the media coverage turned to the GOP battle.

According to national horse race polls, that race is still led by Rudolph Giuliani. The former New York mayor is positioned to the left of the party’s conservative base on a number of social issues. But the man who was in charge of New York on the day the World Trade Center fell is running hard as the toughest candidate on terrorism.

On Tucker Carlson’s Sept. 5 MSNBC show, Republican Congressman Peter King touted Giuliani as the real law-and-order candidate in any contest with Thompson, the man who played a hard-boiled District Attorney on NBC’s hit series “Law & Order.”

The candidate who has “a tough record against crime and a strong record against terrorism, and who has articulated a strong position against terrorism, is Rudy Giuliani,” argued King.

In the cover story for the Sept. 9 New York Times Magazine, writer Matt Bai offered this explanation for why Giuliani has thus far defied those who say he is too moderate on domestic issues to win the GOP nomination: “Giuliani’s campaign, like his resurrected political career, is built atop the rubble of the twin towers.”

Giuliani rarely misses a chance to hammer home that point. In a Fox News Channel report previewing the Sept. 5 Republican debate in New Hampshire, Giuliani stressed that his big differences were with Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and “their approach to going on retreat in the terrorist war against us.” (Thompson skipped that debate, generating his fair share of criticism from some Republicans.)

Last week, Thompson pulled off the neat trick of announcing his White House candidacy on “The Tonight show” with Jay Leno. But in a week of continuing reminders that we live in a more dangerous world after 9/11—including the first video images purported to be of bin Laden in three years—the predicate for Giuliani’s campaign is never far from the headlines.


Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: MSNBC did not broadcast its regular news programming on Monday, September 3, due to the Labor Day holiday. Therefore we did not include MSNBC Monday programs in this week’s sample.


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