Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

A Celebrity Crime Case Spurs Outrage in the Blogosphere

PEJ New Media Index September 28-October 2

The September 27 arrest of director Roman Polanski in Switzerland—more than 30 years after he pled guilty to having sex with a minor and then fled the U.S.—energized the blogosphere last week. An overwhelming majority of commentators wanted to see Polanski punished for his crime and harshly criticized his supporters in the entertainment industry. 

For the week of September 28-October 2, more than a third (34%) of the links to news-related stories from blogs were focused on the Polanski saga, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. That was more than three times the attention that the second-largest story, health care, received from bloggers last week.

While other entertainment industry luminaries have garnered attention in blogs, often when they have passed away, the attention to Polanski was the most devoted to any such celebrity since the NMI was introduced in January. Polanski even outpaced Michael Jackson’s passing, which received 27% of the links the week of June 22-26.

Another element that stood out was how long the story lasted in the blogosphere. Most weeks, storylines—especially those involving celebrities—have a one or two-day lifespan before another news event takes over. In this case, however, the conversation lasted all week long, evolving over time from admonishment of Polanski to condemnation of Hollywood to sympathy for the victim.

The second largest story last week, at 11%, was the ongoing debate over health care reform. Most of the attention in the blogosphere focused on the fate of the so-called “public option” and specifically on votes by the Senate Finance Committee to reject amendments that would have included such a proposal. Many bloggers linked to a Washington Post article that indicated the chances for a public option had dimmed.

Health care also ranked highly in the mainstream press news agenda last week, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index. It was the top subject at 11% of the newshole. Polanski’s arrest did generate some coverage in the traditional press. It registered as the No. 8 story, filling 4% of the newshole, but that was only a fraction of the attention it received among bloggers.

The next three stories in the blogosphere represented a diverse set of topics that did not receive much attention in the mainstream press. Third, at 9%, was a BBC report on a claim made by a former speech writer for President George W. Bush, Matt Latimer. According to Latimer, the author of the wildly popular Harry Potter books, JK Rowling, was never awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom because some in the Bush administration believed her books promoted sorcery.

The fourth-largest subject, at 8%, was another BBC report, this one about two British police officers who were told they were breaking the law by taking care of each other’s children. According to authorities, their actions violated the English Childcare Act which demands that people who are providing regular “childminding” for other people’s kids must register with the government.

And the No. 5 story (at 5%) was a controversy stirred by the Empire State Building in New York, which shone red and yellow lights in honor of the 60th anniversary of China’s communist revolution. 

On Twitter last week, users continued to focus their news links on technology. The most popular subject, with 16% of the news-focused links on tweets, was that of Google Wave, a new product from Google that promised to “revolutionize online communication.” The application, which began beta testing last week, includes elements of blogs, email, chat, photo-sharing sites, and other types of Wiki documents, and aims to replace other forms of online communication.

The second subject (12%) was made up of two articles that speculated that Apple will release a tablet computer in early 2010.

And the third subject (11%) was a collection of stories about the social networking site Facebook. Much of that attention was focused on a report that a movie about the founders of Facebook will begin shooting next month. Polanski’s Arrest

After the news of Polanski’s arrest became public, a few commentators and some prominent names in Hollywood suggested he should not have been detained. They argued that too much time had passed since his 1977 guilty plea of having unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor and that there were problems with how the courts originally handled the case.

These voices of sympathy for Polanski received little support online as bloggers quickly countered that he should have to serve time for his actions.

“I just don’t understand how people can defend him,” posted Jackbenimble. “His wealth and celebrity allowed him to escape having to face the consequences of his actions. Time has run out and now he needs to deal with the problem he ran from. The victim of his actions can’t excuse him for his actions. He didn’t steal a pack of gum or a couple of dollars. He stole innocence and left a trail of destruction. It was wrong and inexcusable.”

“Mr. Polanski has suffered great hardship in his life,” added William the Coroner referring to difficulties in the director’s upbringing, including being a Holocaust survivor. “Tragedy, however, does not give someone a free pass to be a criminal. Neither does talent or celebrity. I reserve my sympathy for his victim. Mr. Polanski has evaded justice for decades, and it is time for it to end. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

By Wednesday, after a number of filmmakers, including Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, signed a petition calling for Polanski’s release, the online commentary continued with a different angle. It shifted from denouncing Polanski’s actions to chiding Hollywood in general.

“Whatever the personal or professional reasons, Polanski’s supporters have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are morally bankrupt,” stated Steve at One Citizen Speaking. “The individual celebrities who have come out to support Polanski should now be viewed in a new light. Now we know why they are liberal democrats – because they eschew family values and personal accountability, often while spinning even outlandish events to their own benefit.”

“Boycott anything coming out of Hollywood for, oh, the rest of my life,” added Jay G at Stuck in Massachusetts.

And by Friday, many bloggers linked to a column by Steve Lopez in the Los Angeles Times that included segments of testimony from the original criminal trial and tried to shift the focus back to the “true victim” of the crime rather than on Polanski.

“What Roman Polanski did to that 13-year-old girl happens hundreds of times a day to other girls all over America,” responded Starcat Jewel. “Many of them have no one to advocate for them…Someone who says that Polanski has ‘suffered enough’ is saying that it’s perfectly okay for a 40-year-old man to rape a 13-year-old girl, over her repeated protests…I don’t care how long ago it happened. He did it, he admitted it, and he has never paid a lick of atonement for it. That changes now.” Health Care Vote on the Public Option

A September 30 article in the Washington Post entitled “Prospects for Public Option Dim in Senate” reported on two key votes in the Senate Finance Committee which went against including a public option in the bill.

The online discussion that followed debated the prospects for a public option, with passionate commentary from both sides. 

“The chances appear stronger that the public option is simply dead,” wrote Pejman Yousefzadeh at the New Ledger. “There are plenty of other provisions in the emerging health care reform legislation that are objectionable, but one of the most objectionable pieces of the legislation seems to be in its death throes.”

“As dead as dead can be, serious health care reform that is,” proclaimed Gorilla’s Blog. “Unserious reform will pass this year, some fruit loopy co-ops or some phony trigger, or nothing at all if the progressives decide to stand tall…One hopes our President will learn from this experience, because he’s blown it big time.”

Yet others on dueling sides of the issue cautioned that the committee votes were not necessarily the final word.

“The public option is not dead yet,” suggested Jake Today, a blog in support of health care reform. “There will be amendments to the Senate bill. Then the bill will go to conference. In both cases, it can be added. If the final bill lacks a public option, then it will be past time for a new party to be formed.”

“The Washington Post claims that the Senate Finance Committee’s rejection two amendments to create a government-run health insurance plan…dealt a ‘crippling blow’ to the hopes of liberals seeking to expand the federal role in health coverage as a cornerstone of reform,” pointed out Karl at the conservative blog Hot Air before outlining several scenarios in which the public option could still survive. “The reality is a bit murkier than that, and likely connected to to overall fate of ObamaCare.”*


The most viewed news video on YouTube last week was the same one that also dominated the previous week—a first-person account of an encounter during protests in Pittsburgh at the G20 Summit on September 24.

The second video was a brief clip from the comedy program Saturday Night Live in which new cast member, Jenny Slate, accidentally swore during her first broadcast. The show, famous for its live broadcasts, could not censor the incident during its original airing.

The third video was an interview by filmmaker Michael Moore on the September 24 edition of CNN’s Situation Room. Moore, whose previous interviews on cable shows have become popular YouTube clips, was promoting his new documentary “Capitalism: A Love Story.”

The interview grew tense when Wolf Blitzer asked Moore about charges that he is being hypocritical for having earned significant amounts of money in a system he is now criticizing. Moore responded with a spirited, if somewhat sarcastic, defense of his work.


Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube

For the Week of September 26-October 2, 2009

1. An eyewitness video of a protestor at the G20 summit getting arrested

2. New Saturday Night Live cast member Jenny Slate swears during her September 26 appearance

3. Wolf Blitzer interviews filmmaker Michael Moore on the September 24 edition of CNN’s Situation Room

4. G20 Protestors at the University of Pittsburgh clash with police

5. A video plea for donations to help the victims of the Philippines Typhoon that includes photographs of the disaster


The New Media Index is a weekly report that captures the leading commentary of blogs and social media sites focused on news and compares those subjects to that of the mainstream press.

PEJ has launched the New Media Index as a companion to its weekly News Coverage Index. Blogs and other new media are an important part of creating today’s news information narrative and in shaping the way Americans interact with the news. The expansion of online blogs and other social media sites has allowed news-consumers and others outside the mainstream press to have more of a role in agenda setting, dissemination and interpretation. PEJ aims to find out what subjects in the national news the online sites focus on, and how that compared with the narrative in the traditional press.

A prominent Web tracking site Icerocket which, monitors millions of blogs, using the links to articles embedded on these sites as a proxy for determining what these subjects are. Using this tracking process as a base, PEJ staff compiles the lists of links weekday each day.   They capture the top five linked-to stories on each list (50 stories in all each week), and reads, watches or listens to these posts and conducts a content analysis of their subject matter, just as it does for the mainstream press in its weekly News Coverage Index. It follows the same coding methodology as that of the NCI. This process allows us to compare the New Media commentary, based on the Icerocket list of links, with the commentary in the traditional press.  Note: When the NMI was launched in January 2009, another web-tracking site Technorati was similarly monitoring blogs and social media. PEJ originally captured both Technorati’s and Icerocket’s daily aggregation. In recent months, though, this component of Technorati’s site has been down with no indication of when it might resume. 

The priorities of the bloggers are measured in terms of percentage of links. Each time a news blog or social media Web page adds a link to its site directing its readers to a news story, it suggests that the author of the blog places at least some importance on the content of that article. The user may or may not agree with the contents of the article, but they feel it is important enough to draw the reader’s attention to it. PEJ measures the topics that are of most interest to bloggers by compiling the quantitative information on links and analyzing the results.

For the examination of the links from Twitter, PEJ staff monitored the tracking site Tweetmeme. Similar to Icerocket and Technorati, Tweetmeme measures the number of times a link to a particular story or blog post is tweeted and retweeted. Then, as we do with Technorati and Icerocket, PEJ captured the five most popular linked-to pages each weekday under the heading of “news” as determined by Tweetmeme’s method of categorization. And as with the other data provided in the NMI, the top stories are determined in terms of percentage of links. (One minor difference is that Tweetmeme offers the top links over the prior 24 hours while the lists used on Technorati and Icerocket offer the top links over the previous 48 hours.)

The Project also tracks the most popular news video on YouTube each week.

*For the sake of authenticity, PEJ has a policy of not correcting misspellings or grammatical errors that appear in direct quotes from blog postings.

Note: PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index includes Sunday newspapers while the New Media Index is Monday through Friday.

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