The changing of the political guard in Washington, the death of a president and the hanging of a dictator were enough to overshadow the war in Iraq in the American news media last week, according to the inaugural edition of the PEJ News Coverage Index.

In the first week of 2007—December 31 to January 5—the top story was the official takeover by new Democratic Congressional leadership, which made up 15% of the overall newshole. That was followed by the death and state funeral of Gerald R. Ford (12%). The debate over U.S. Iraq policy finished third at 9%. By week’s end, it edged out the execution of Saddam Hussein at 8%, a story made bigger by the subsequent fallout over the taunting by his guards.

Events on the ground in Iraq was the fifth biggest story at 4%, dominated by the announcement that the U.S. death toll had passed the 3,000 mark. In another week, that grim milestone by itself might have pushed the bloodshed in Iraq toward the top of the list.

That busy news agenda was also enough to knock off the list what otherwise might have been top stories, such as the snowstorm in the Rockies and the Ethiopian military assault on Islamists in Somalia, an event with far-reaching implications for U.S. policy. Somalia made the top-five list only online, and the snowstorm only on network TV.

The PEJ’s News Coverage Index, which will be released every Tuesday, is an ongoing study of the news agenda of a wide swath of the American press, measuring the topics covered in 48 different outlets from five sectors of the American media. (See a List of Outlets.) The Index is an attempt to provide an empirical look at what the media are and aren’t covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. We believe it is the largest continuing study of the media agenda ever attempted. (See About the News Coverage Index.)

Different parts of the media had different priorities last week. The Ford funeral, with its pomp and circumstance, was a bigger story on television. It made up 17% of the network coverage and 18% of cable, while accounting for just 4% of the coverage that began on the front page of newspapers (barely making the top five).

The made-for-TV nature of a state funeral was one obvious reason for the television appeal of Ford’s funeral. But other factors, including revisionism about Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, seemed to have factored into the level of media interest. “He had no charisma, but he had great ability” one former Treasury Department official told NPR’s “Morning Edition, summing up the general public sentiment. “And you can trust him.”

The formal installation of the new Democratic Congress, an event of significant substantive and symbolic importance, was the top story in three media sectors – newspapers (12%), network television (19%) and radio (20%), and a close second in cable. Interest in the story—which exploded with the Jan. 4 swearing-in ceremonies—spiked dramatically because of Nancy Pelosi’s elevation as the first female House Speaker. Indeed, a Pelosi profile was a requisite feature of much of the coverage, often noting her status as a grandmother from a Baltimore political family.

Hussein’s Dec. 30 hanging death might have been a smaller story, but it metastasized into a much bigger event thanks to amateur video shot on a cell phone, a phenomenon changing the media landscape. The grainy footage—complete with “Moktada” taunts from Hussein’s Shiite guards—traveled from cell phone to cell phone, according to press accounts, until it eventually ended up on mainstream outlets like CNN.

The shifting arc of the story was evident in the New York Times coverage over three days that began with a sanitized account of the hanging and ended with U.S. officials distancing themselves from the execution as the paper ran a blurry photo from the video of Hussein encircled by the noose. On New Year’s Day, ABC’s “Good Morning America” aired that clip while Baghdad correspondent Terry McCarthy described rising Sunni fury in Iraq and declared: “It was a grim start to the New Year as a new video emerged.”

By January 1, coverage of Hussein’s hanging changed from a case of justice fulfilled to a brutal display of sectarian revenge, and something that might have been positive politically for the Bush Administration had become more complicated. Interestingly, radio—the one media sector that couldn’t display images from the cell phone—gave the Hussein story the least play at 3%.

Even as these events dominated the news, however, the war in Iraq hardly disappeared. Indeed if one were to combine three components of the Iraq story–the Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq themselves (other than Hussein’s hanging), and stories about events on the home front (families and soldiers)—the Iraq war generally would have made up 16% of the coverage, edging out Congress as the top story. That gives some sense of how, even in a week with other major news, the Iraq situation is ever present.

Indeed, Gerald Ford posthumously made his own news about Iraq. In an embargoed 2004 interview that the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward published on Dec. 28, the former president acknowledged that “I don’t think I would have gone to war,” in Iraq.

But mostly the debate over U.S. policy in Iraq was fueled last week first by a growing number of reports that President Bush had decided on a “surge” option of introducing more troops, a decision slated to be announced this week.

Administration officials worry the “president is running out of time to achieve some kind of success in Iraq” because “the American public has simply run out of patience,” NBC Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski reported on January 2.

By the end of the week, momentum for the story came from another turn in the narrative, the changes in the administration’s Iraq military and diplomatic team.
Looking ahead, one way to determine who is winning the spin game after the President’s January 10th speech may be to watch which word—“surge” or “escalate”—dominates the news vocabulary in the coming week.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ


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Click here to see the list of top ten stories by percent for each medium.

Note: Due to the New Year’s holiday, the following outlets were not published or did not air that day: Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Sun Chronicle, ABC’s World News Tonight, or any of MSNBC’s regular programming.