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Terrorism, Tight Credit, and Tragedies Emerge in the News in Third Quarter

The 2008 Campaign: Steady Coverage with Clinton as Top Newsmaker

For at least a few days this summer, even Hillary Clinton’s neckline became a campaign issue.

On July 20, the same day the Washington Post published a story about Clinton’s “tentative dip into new neckline territory,” a segment on “senatorial cleavage” was part of the MSNBC Hardball lineup. One guest, feminist author Naomi Wolf, dismissed the topic as “kind of a complete waste of time.” That was hardly the last word. Three nights later, at the Democrats CNN/YouTube debate, Clinton was asked to respond to the media’s focus on the issue of her not being “satisfactorily feminine.”

If nothing else, the neckline episode seemed to reflect the media’s continuing fascination with almost everything about the former First Lady. A well-known if polarizing figure with a long history in the public spotlight and a chance to become the nation’s first female president, Clinton has provided the media with a number of storylines—some substantive, some bordering on the trivial. But from the very outset of a campaign that has attracted unprecedented early media attention; she has been the candidate in the brightest spotlight.

Although one might not count Clinton’s décolletage among them, the third quarter included a number of significant events in the race for the White House. There were debates everywhere from the Citadel to the University of New Hampshire, the official entry of former Republican Senator/actor Fred Thompson, and a surprisingly strong finish in an Iowa straw poll that helped trigger media speculation that former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee might be a more formidable GOP candidate than originally thought.

Yet the campaign was already such a major story in the media, all this only sustained the level of coverage rather than swelling it further.

After jumping up from 7% of the newshole in the first quarter to 9% in the second quarter, campaign coverage remained steady in the third quarter (still 9%).

The fact that presidential race coverage in the summer months did not exceed the spring output should probably be viewed further evidence of just how quickly the “media primary” got fully underway in this early-starting election cycle. With such key Democratic contenders as Clinton and Barack Obama entering the fray in January, the election has either been the first or second-biggest story in each of the first three quarters of the year. There’s been virtually no break or letup in the coverage that began 22 months before the next President would be chosen by the voters.

Indeed, in 23 of the 39 weeks of the first three quarters of 2007, the campaign has been either the biggest or second biggest story covered.

In four of the five media sectors—newspapers, online, network TV and cable—the level of presidential coverage remained virtually unchanged from the second to third quarter. Only in the radio sector—driven by increased attention on NPR and in talk radio—did the coverage rise noticeably, from 10% in the second quarter to 12% in the July-September period.

Clinton leads the press parade

As the fascination with her neckline suggests, the Clinton candidacy continued to attract the most media coverage. In the third quarter, the former First Lady was the lead newsmaker in 16% of all the campaign stories, nearly doubling the totals of her closest competitors in the battle for press attention, Barack Obama and Fred Thompson, who came in at 8%.

Clinton was the leading newsmaker in every sector except newspapers, where she dominated 9% of the front page stories compared with Thompson’s 12%. Reflecting talk radio’s endless fascination with her, she was the lead newsmaker in that platform more than four times as often as her nearest rival, besting Obama by a 31% to 7% margin in the programs studied.

Clinton’s third quarter coverage level closely tracks with what PEJ found in its new “Invisible Primary” study of campaign coverage from January through May of 2007. In those months, the Democratic frontrunner was the most covered candidate and leading newsmaker in 17% of the stories.

But the pecking order of press coverage below her changed fairly dramatically in the July-September period when compared with the first five months of the year.

One change was a drop off in the third quarter in coverage of Clinton’s closest Democratic pursuer, who in the fourth quarter has seen a surge in some public opinion polls. While still finishing second in the race for exposure, Obama—who had nearly kept pace with Clinton through the first part of the year—tumbled from 14% in the first five months of 2007 to 8% in the third quarter.

There may be several reasons for the falloff in Obama coverage including the idea that some of the sheer novelty of the young, charismatic African-American’s candidacy had worn off. Another could be that for much of the summer, Obama seemed unable to make any headway in catching Clinton in the polls.

The Democratic hopeful who usually runs third in those polls, former Senator John Edwards, dropped slightly from 4% to 3%.

On the Republican side, Thompson, who wasn’t an announced candidate until September, moved up to 8% from 3%. Senator John McCain dropped from 7% in the first five months of 2007 to 5% in the third quarter. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani fell to 4% from 9% and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney dropped to 3% from 5%.

No other candidate was the lead newsmaker in more than 1% of the campaign stories in the third quarter.

Democrats get more attention than Republicans

Although the trend was briefly interrupted in the second quarter, the media’s propensity to pay considerably more attention to the Democrats than Republicans re-emerged in the third quarter.

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