Three deeply intertwined subjects—the debate over U.S. strategy in Iraq, the speech defending that strategy, and the emerging campaign to succeed that speech’s author—finished in a virtual tie for the top story in the news last week according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index.

Together the three stories made up nearly 40% of the newshole in our Index of the news from January 21 to 26.

One other not-so-subliminal message in last week’s coverage is that of an increasingly dangerous and destabilizing world. Aside from Iraq, the top-10 stories last week included violent protests in Lebanon, escalating conflict in Afghanistan, and rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran. This marked the first time that four global hotspots made the Index’s top-10 list this year.

The Iraq policy debate, a dominant story all year, built momentum throughout the week. The coverage, totaling 13% of the newshole, was driven last week by a series of events—including a Senate committee resolution rebuking the president, the confirmation of Lt. Gen. David Petraeus as top Iraq commander, and Dick Cheney’s CNN comment characterizing the naysaying on Iraq as “hogwash.”

Media attention to the January 23 State of the Union address (also 13% of the newshole), by contrast, waned as the week wore on.

So did the coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign (also 13% of the newshole). That story—the fifth biggest the week before—was fueled early on by Hillary Clinton’s media blitz, which included a series of network interviews. The media practically ignored the Republican challengers last week, even though two of them, Sam Brownback and Duncan Hunter, announced their entrance into the race.

The continuing bloodshed in Iraq—led by a lethal attack on U.S. troops by militants disguised as Americans—was the fourth most covered story (at 9%). And “Scooter” Libby’s obstruction and perjury trial finished fifth (3%), the media focusing largely on his lawyer’s claim that Libby was being sacrificed to protect White House political guru Karl Rove.

PEJ’s News Coverage Index, released every Tuesday, is an ongoing study of the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the American media. (See a List of Outlets.) The Index is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are and aren't covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. (See Our Methodology.) We believe it is the largest continuing study of the media agenda ever attempted. (See About the News Coverage Index.)

In a highly competitive week, three different subjects topped all five media sectors we study. The State of the Union was the biggest news online, at 17%, and on radio, at 23%. Iraq policy has continually proved to be a major TV story and was again, the leading story on cable news, at 20%, and network news, at 18%. The 2008 race for the White House was the biggest newspaper story, accounting for 17% of the front-page coverage.

All three top stories seem to reflect the growing convergence between the Iraq war and U.S. politics with a presidential election now visible on the distant horizon.

Given the torrent of leaks about the State of the Union, much of the coverage actually occurred before the president spoke. If there was a post-mortem that reflected a consensus of the media punditocracy it was a January 24 Boston Globe analysis that described a president who had to “tone down his rhetoric” and “dress his faltering presidency in a cloak of statesmanship.”

In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on January 24, Vice-president Cheney struck a far more combative note than President had in his speech—and succeeded in generating significant discussion in the media. He dismissed talk of blunders in Iraq as “hogwash” and asserted that the “bottom line is that we've had enormous successes and we will continue to have enormous successes.” At times, Blitzer had to defend himself against Cheney’s give-no-quarter demeanor, trying to justify the propriety of some questions, and the basis behind others.

The other top story of the week, the 2008 presidential campaign received its highest share of overall coverage to date, in this the fourth week of our Index. That was due primarily to Hillary Clinton’s January 20 entry into the race and her January 22 trifecta of interviews on all three evening network newscasts.

If the big Barack Obama question is whether America is ready for a black president, for Clinton it’s the gender issue. A piece on Paula Zahn’s CNN show wondering if “America [is] ready for a female commander-in-chief” show raised the tricky issue of an “image challenge” for a woman, who has been perceived as “not warm,” “cold” and “brittle” and “tough as nails.”

If you were a Republican trying to run for president last week, you were largely out of luck. Despite the entrance into the race of Republican hopefuls as Brownback on January 20 and Duncan Hunter five days later, it was the star power of Barack and Clinton dictating the coverage. There were 93 stories predominantly about Democratic candidates for president during the week compared to just seven that focused largely on the GOP contenders.

Two smoldering global conflicts that vaulted into the top 10 list reflect the diversity of international news presented in online media. The Lebanon clashes that are an outgrowth of the war between Hezbollah and Israel and which threaten Beirut’s pro-western government generated 6% of the online coverage, compared with 2% in the media overall. And the continuing NATO and U.S. battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan—which made news when the White House asked Congress to earmark $10.6 billion for that struggle—filled 5% of the online newshole (versus 2% overall).

A courtroom drama made the top-10 list in every media sector last week and cracked the top five in the full Index. The “Scooter” Libby trial—the latest chapter in the confusing case of the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame—promises a bonanza of buzz in the Beltway, given the parade of Washington insiders expected to take the stand. But any concern that the trial was too much of insiders’ game to generate coverage seemed to vanish when, as CBS anchor Katie Couric put it, “there was a new twist’’ early in the proceedings.

That twist, as Couric explained on the January 23 CBS newscast, was Libby’s lawyer’s argument that “top White House officials wanted him to take the blame for the leak of a secret CIA agent’s name so they can protect Karl Rove, the president’s chief political strategist.”

The story that immediately followed the Libby report on CBS that evening was the death of E. Howard Hunt, the man who spent several years in prison for his role in the greatest scandal in American political history.

No one expects “Libby-gate” to approach Watergate. But with its glimpses into White House intrigue, it might be a big story for a few more weeks.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: Due to the President's State of the Union speech on Tuesday, January 23, some cable programming that evening was preempted.