On February 9, about 24 hours after the death of Anna Nicole Smith, CNN curmudgeon Jack Cafferty was reading viewer emails complaining about non-stop cable coverage of that story—and agreeing with them.

“That’s the only story we reported [yesterday] for two solid hours and we weren’t the only ones,” growled Wolf Blitzer’s “Situation Room” sidekick. “Her death was tabloid gold and apparently, we just couldn’t help ourselves.”

“I know a lot of people are complaining about that,” said Blitzer, somewhat defensively. “But a lot of people are also watching.”

For the first time this year, “tabloid gold” fever seized at least some of the news media last week in a significant way, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index from February 4 to February 9. Though it only made up two days of coverage, the sudden death of the Playmate turned heiress turned reality star was the No. 3 story in the news last week, almost edging out a bloody week in Iraq.

And that may be understating the feel of the coverage. The bosomy blonde’s demise consumed a staggering 50% of the cable newshole PEJ examined on February 8 and 9. Those are levels reminiscent of those pre-9/11 celebrity sagas—think Princess Di and JFK Jr.

The story lines ran from police procedural to racy, with a little bit of moralizing about celebrity culture—what killed her, who fathered her infant, and where her money would go. The February 9 headline in the New York Post, “CSI Probe in Siren Shocker,” seemed to sum it up.

Had it fallen more in the middle of the week, the Smith coverage, which made up 9% of the newshole in just two days, would have doubtless knocked news of events in Iraq out of the No. 2 spot in the news (at 10%) and come close to knocking out the debate at home over Iraq strategy as the No. 1 story of the week (it made up 12%). It was enough to overshadow what had been a good tale of sex and almost murder that preceded it —news that diaper-clad astronaut Lisa Nowak allegedly tried to kill a romantic rival. Nowak still made the Index’s top five story list (6%). Coverage of the 2008 White House race, which got a boost from Rudy Giuliani’s statement of candidacy, was the fourth biggest story at 8%.

PEJ’s News Coverage Index is a study of the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. (See a 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.) On some levels, the Nowak and Smith stories had elements in common. They were both female celebrities, and both tragedies conjured up human frailties such as lust, infidelity, and possibly, criminal behavior.

But the nature of the celebrity and the level of it may reflect something about the culture. Smith, who was famous for nudity, marrying an octogenarian millionaire, and being involved in sordid paternity suits, was the much bigger celebrity. Nowak, an astronaut and engineer, was virtually unknown until her infamy last week. (And like her life, Smith’s death became an exercise in paparazzi-commercialism. A video of EMTs trying to revive her, which reportedly sold for more than a half million, quickly circulated online.)

In both cases, the media coverage purported to justify the intensity of the coverage by looking for deeper meaning behind the stories.

In the Nowak situation, the angle that quickly emerged was whether NASA was properly training and evaluating its astronauts.

“NASA has never seen a story like this,” declared Katie Couric, introducing CBS’s February 6 newscast by characterizing the case as a “bizarre story that has left some people wondering about how astronauts are screened.”

A New York Times February 7 front page story wondered “whether the ‘Right Stuff’ image of astronauts has been tarnished, or if that image somehow confused technical excellence with emotional stability.”

In the Smith case, that deeper angle seemed more self-conscious and more guilt-ridden. Why were we so intrigued by a woman who, as MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann put it, is “principally famous merely for being famous?”

On her February 8 evening show, CNN’s Paula Zahn proffered as an answer the theory that this was a case of “America’s fixation on celebrity, on tragedy, on sex, money, tabloid headlines and death.”

Olbermann himself asked “Access Hollywood” correspondent Tony Potts: “Why has her death seemed to resonate so loudly? What…was she actually famous for?”

“Two words, Keith. I would say ‘Marilyn Monroe,’” Potts responded, conjuring up comparisons to another troubled blonde bombshell who died under mysterious circumstances, but only after a much more significant acting career than Smith’s.

That angle was indeed repeatedly conjured up in the images oft replayed, her Marilyn poses, her Marilyn hair, and now her Marilyn-like death. The pictures aired over and over as cable anchors waited for the slightest hint of new details, which were scarce in coming.

On the Fox News Channel, Bill O’Reilly led his February 8 show by claiming not to understand the fascination with Smith, who he called “a tabloid queen…I’m looking at her and seeing a media creation.”

O’Reilly’s guest, entertainment writer Jeanne Wolf, responded that Smith’s fame was largely a result of her rags to riches (or at least contested riches) story that was “part of the American fantasy.”

That fantasy, however, was explored more heavily on cable news than elsewhere. For the week, her death consumed 21% of cable airtime–more than any other story. In the programs. it examined accounted for about 50 reports or stories on the February 8 and 9 prime-time shows.

Nowak’s story, in contrast, was spread widely through the Index’s five media sectors (in online, network TV, and radio, the astronaut generated more coverage than the bombshell).

A look at the coverage also suggests that some elite mainstream media outlets were more comfortable giving major play to the astronaut story than to Smith’s soap opera. Unlike a number of papers, the New York Times did not yield space on page 1 for Smith’s death. And though it was covered on all three major networks, the story was positioned well down in the evening newscasts. Nowak’s arrest, conversely, was the first story on the CBS newscast and the second story on NBC’s on February 6. It also made PBS’s “NewsHour.”

On February 8, NBC anchor Brian William’s momentarily teased Smith’s demise at the top of the newscast before moving to an interview with his network colleague, Tim Russert, who had just testified in the Scooter Libby trial. When Williams finally got to the Smith piece about 10 minutes later, he added a touch of moralizing about one of those stories the media feel compelled to both cover and apologize for.

“This may say a lot about our current culture of celebrity and media these days, when all the major cable news networks switched over to non-stop live coverage this afternoon when word arrived that Anna Nicole Smith had died,” he said, a bit disapprovingly.

Even in a week of such Anna Nicole mania, the war in Iraq remained a media priority. The debate over Iraq strategy was the biggest story for the fourth time in six weeks. Yet the situation on the ground in Iraq (at 10%) generated its highest level of overall coverage and was the leading story in both the newspaper and online sectors.

Coverage of that subject was fueled by the horrific February 3 Baghdad bombing that took more than 130 lives as well as questions being raised about the continuing loss of American helicopters flying over Iraq (which included a new video of insurgents shooting down a chopper.) The presidential campaign was a top five story for the fourth straight week. The big news was that Republicans finally attracted as much media attention as their Democratic rivals thanks to Rudy Giuliani’s Feb. 5 statement of candidacy. While leading in GOP polls, Giuliani triggered plenty of coverage wondering whether his views on issues such as abortion and gay rights were too liberal for the Republican Party base.

And for the fourth time in six weeks, bad weather—this time mostly in the east—was a top 10 subject, finishing sixth at 3%. But neither heavy snowfall nor numbing freezes packed the power of the tabloid tornado that swirled around Anna Nicole Smith last week.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ


Note: Due to a technical error, a segment of the Ed Schultz radio program from February 6 was not coded as part of this week's sample.