ABC’s Good Morning America opened its show on November 16 with the previous night’s Democratic debate.
“Hillary Clinton announces she’s ready to return the fire,” Diane Sawyer proclaimed. The clips that followed showed Clinton declaring, “This pants suit, it’s asbestos tonight.”
That same day, the CBS Evening News reported on a different aspect of the campaign—accusations of push-polling in New Hampshire. Allegedly, phone calls had been made to potential voters that first stated positive qualities of John McCain, but then asked voters if they knew Mitt Romney was Mormon. Both Romney and McCain condemned the apparent attacks on Romney’s religion.
With six weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, the campaign for the White House has become a story that no longer requires an overarching theme to dominate the news. Last week, a host of mini-scandals—to some perhaps, tempests in teapots and games of gotcha—were enough not only to make the campaign the No. 1 story last week, but to make it the biggest week for campaign coverage in 2007.
At the same time, the state of emergency in Pakistan transformed itself in press coverage into a joust between two personalities. And O.J. 2.0 continued.
By the numbers last week, the campaign overwhelmed everything else. The No. 1 story of the week, the race for president filled more than a fifth of the newshole (21%) as measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index. That was the highest weekly total for campaign coverage so far this year.
Coverage of events in Pakistan dropped by more than half. The story fell from comprising 17% of the newshole in the week of November 4-9 to 7% last week. But that still made it the second-biggest story of the week, and Pakistan is the only country other than Iraq and Iran this year to remain a top-two story for two weeks running. (Iran made up 12% and then 13% of the newshole the weeks of March 25 and April 1.)
The other top stories of the week were events on the ground in Iraq (5% of the space in print and online and time on television and radio of outlets measured in the Index), the Iraq policy debate at home (3%) and the baseball steroids scandal (3%), thanks largely to the Nov. 15 indictment of home run king Barry Bonds.
It was also a week that highlighted the differences between different kinds of the media. In newspapers, Pakistan was the biggest story of the week (12% of the space in the front page stories in the papers examined), and at 13% of the newshole on online news sites, it rivaled the campaign (14%) in that sector. But on cable, Pakistan was hard to find. It was the No. 12 story of the week, making up just 1% of the airtime. On cable, O.J. Simpson was far bigger news, the No. 2 story of the week, filling 8% of the newshole. And the fate of Stacey Peterson, the policeman’s wife who has gone missing, was the No. 5 story. (By contrast, the Peterson case was not a front page story in any of the 13 newspapers examined.)
PEJ’s News Coverage Index examines the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. (See 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.)
What stood out in the race for president last week, however, was the fact that no one story needs to emerge as preeminent now for the campaign to dominate press coverage.
Last week it was a host of things. One was a mini-scandal involving Hillary Clinton that erupted after a Grinnell College student told her school paper that the question she asked at a Clinton rally was planted by a campaign staffer. The sophomore, Muriel Gallo-Chasanoff, told CNN she was encouraged by the staffer to ask about climate change and not another question she had prepared. The Clinton campaign later admitted to planting a question.
That created an opportunity for both the press and other campaigns to attack Clinton’s credibility. On Monday, November 12, the Fox News Channel’s Shepard Smith reported, “More heat for Hillary Clinton, and it’s putting her on the defensive.” While Smith was introducing the story, a graphic that read “Hillary Hunt” appeared on the bottom-right corner of the screen.
One reason the planted question story might have gained momentum is that it may feed an emerging narrative about Clinton’s campaign being controlling. Fox News reporter Major Garret, one of the first to pick up planted question story, said the brouhaha played into existing doubts raised by Barack Obama and John Edwards about Clinton’s honesty. “The fact that Hillary Clinton has now admitted at least in one case of putting a favorable question out to her reinforces, in the Edwards and the Obama camps’ mind, that particular frame,” he said.
John McCain also found himself in the midst of a gotcha moment. On November 12, a woman at a South Carolina meet-and-greet asked McCain, “How do we beat the bitch?” a reference to Clinton that apparently needed no elaboration. McCain caught off guard, chuckled and hesitated before saying, “May I give the translation?” When the audience laughter had died down, he added, “But that’s an excellent question.”
McCain did express his respect for Clinton, but the fact that he did not offer a direct rebuke to the use of the B-word fed the controversy. ABC’s World News Tonight aired a clip of an unidentified voter stating, “He’s running to be the leader of our country. He should have certainly used some leadership at that moment.” Even Republican strategist Tucker Eskew was critical. “If there’s anything he could have done different, it would have been to more quickly rebuke that choice of words and then answer the question, which is ‘How are we going to beat her?’”
While the story focused on McCain and his response to a loaded question, it gave reporters another opportunity to reference another theme regarding Clinton’s campaign—her electability. The same ABC World News Tonight segment offered the results of an Ohio poll that found 44% of registered voters have an unfavorable view of the New York Senator. The newscast also highlighted three women who declared they would never vote for Clinton, with one adding, “I’m not so sure that she is for the family.”
And a number of outlets, particularly MSNBC, touched on the impact to Rudolph Giuliani, the GOP front runner in various national polls, of his former business colleague and friend, Bernard Kerik, being indicted for corruption and tax fraud charges.
MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann emphasized the Giuliani-Kerik connection on November 15. Giuliani’s opponents were “sensing blood in the water,” said Olbermann, who followed with nasty quotes in the New York Observer from rival campaigns. An aide for John McCain was quoted as saying, “For Rudy to go out and say this is not worthy of discussion when it directly involves him and his decision making and in the case of the Department of Homeland Security, the security of our country – it’s disturbing that Rudy would think it’s not something he is going to have to address.”
The news here was heavily speculative, but no less urgent. MSNBC correspondent David Shuster revealed: “I can report tonight that one of the rival campaigns is actively considering how and when to put the spotlight on this race on what they are referring to as Rudy Giuliani’s burning Kerik problem.”
Pakistani Ping Pong
In Pakistan, the storyline in the media shifted last week. A week before, the main theme was citizen protestors—including lawyers in suits—reacting to President Pervez Musharraf’s November 3 declaration of a state of emergency. The narrative last week morphed into a back-and-forth contest of tactical ping pong between Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
The exchange began on Monday when opposition leader Bhutto said she was going to call for mass protests. Musharraf countered by placing her under house arrest.
As Americans woke up Tuesday, they could see her next move. CBS’s Early Show, for instance, showed the barbed wire now around Bhutto’s house and reported that she was now calling for Musharraf’s resignation. “We are marching because it is time for General Musharraf to leave, simply leave. I think he’s out of touch, he’s out of step and its time for him to leave,” her voice was heard saying over a still photo.
That evening Musharraf responded again, saying Bhutto “had no right” to tell him to step down, as the LA Times reported it. On NBC Nightly News, Pakistan’s President mounted his own charm offensive, inviting a group of reporters, including NBC’s Richard Engle, in for interviews. Bhutto would never be his prime minister now, he told Engle, dashing earlier hopes that the two might have formed a unity government.
And Musharraf seemed to think that Bhutto was getting the better of the coverage. The western media like Bhutto because she is a woman and “and if she speaks very good English, very good, and if she happens also to be good looking, well then even better,” he told Engle.
On November 15 Bhutto hit back again. She was now working to form a national unity government of her own, the account on Yahoo News explained, ready to replace Musharraf should he agree to step down.
The next day, Musharraf announced he had formed a new cabinet, which he described as a step toward reinstating democracy. CNN reported, however, that all of the members were “hand picked and Musharraf friendly.”
And the week notably featured the return of O.J. Simpson to court. A preliminary hearing on kidnapping and armed robbery charges gave cable news the opportunity to revisit the ongoing saga that is the life of former the football star. Here O.J. outpaced every other subject except for the race for president.
At times, some cable hosts even seemed self conscious about the time they were spending on the subject. In melodramatic tones, CNN’s Anderson Cooper described the trial on November 14 as “a bad joke,” and added that the scene was “tragedy repeating itself as bad comedy, but the charges are deadly serious, kidnapping and armed robbery.”
Much of the coverage focused on the odd collection of characters who took the stand against O.J. As veteran Associated Press legal reporter Linda Deutsch said on Cooper’s program, “It’s amazing. I have never seen a preliminary hearing like this. It had so many witnesses, and every one of them had credibility problems.”
The day before, on CNN’s Out in the Open, Rick Sanchez played a clip from the hearing at which one of witness was asked whether he was a pimp. Following the unusual piece of courtroom footage, Court TV correspondent Jami Floyd exclaimed, “These are the moments we live for in criminal law! This is a thing of beauty! This is why you become a criminal lawyer!”
Apparently, Floyd was not the only one who was anticipating more from O.J. 2.0. As CNN correspondent Ted Rowlands warned viewers November 14, “If the pretrial hearing is any indication, buckle your seat belts.”
Paul Hitlin, Tricia Sartor, and Tom Rosenstiel of PEJ