In January, any talk of war with Iran was little more than a faint rumble on the horizon, and much of that was the coming from a few chatty cable talk hosts.

On January 12, “Hardball” host Chris Matthews opened his show by asking: “Is Bush trying to gin up a war with Iran?” Two days earlier, the President had announced his Baghdad “surge” strategy in a speech that also included a short passage that seemed to threaten action against Iran.

Most of the media focused on the Iraq policy, the reception to the speech and the growing antagonism toward in Congress toward the President’s plan. Any smoldering U.S. tensions with Iran—over its nuclear program and activities in Iraq—remained a small sidebar.

Through January, the subject of Iran never accounted for more than 1% of overall news coverage as measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index. And even that was largely from a handful of cable talkers, such as MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough and CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who kept gnawing at the prospect of another major military front. But last week, those musings about confrontation with Teheran exploded into media consciousness as a serious war scare, according to the PEJ News Interest Index for February 11-16.

This burst of media attention propelled the American-Iranian war of words into the third biggest story of the week (at 7%) and the top story on the front page of newspapers (at 8%), according to the Index.

Only the debate over Iraq (11%) and the densely populated 2008 presidential race (9%) edged out Iran. And if the coverage of one element of the Iraq story—the whereabouts of radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr who was reported to be in Iran–were added in, Iran would have been the second biggest story of the week at 9%.

But the media are hardly a monolith. In cable, the top story of the week remained Anna Nicole Smith, a story that was not even in the top five in any other sector. 

The reasons for Iran’s new prominence reveal something of the mercurial nature of news judgment and about when critical mass on a story is reached. Nothing truly dramatic happened last week involving Iran. But the Administration was inconsistent in its efforts to blame Iran for attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. That led to new questions about the quality of U.S. intelligence, which in turn was compounded by a press conference in which Bush was peppered by questions about his intentions toward Iran. Democrats were quick to seize on his tough-sounding answers. That trifecta of official inconsistency, followed by tough talk, followed by partisan attacks moved Iran from the talk shows to the mainstream media.

The cover of Newsweek, headlined “The Hidden War With Iran,” depicted a grim-looking George Bush facing off against Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Bush’s news- making February 14 press conference came a day after a New York Times front-page story headlined “Skeptics Doubt U.S, Evidence on Iran Action in Iraq.” On Feb. 12, ABC’s “World News Tonight,” aired an interview in which Diane Sawyer—covering some of her blonde mane with a scarf—asked Ahmadinejad flatly: “Do you personally fear an invasion or an attack by the United States?”

Iran also generated more coverage than a landmark nuclear agreement with another member of the “Axis of Evil,” North Korea (6%) and surpassed the continued heavy breathing over Anna Nicole Smith’s tabloid legal tangles (6%).

(It takes a crowded news menu to push the Utah mall massacre and Vladimir Putin’s harsh, Cold-War-style critique of U.S policy out of the top 10 story list.)

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.)


A number of major stories competed for media attention last week and for the first time since the Index’s launch in January, a different subject topped each media sector. While Iran led the newspaper category, events in Iraq topped online (it took up 14% of the newshole). Brutal winter weather was the biggest network TV news event at 16% of the time on the morning and evening programs. On radio, the Iraq policy debate in Washington was the biggest topic at 27%.

On cable, however, the death of former playmate Anna Nicole Smith again dominated (eating up at 20% of the airtime studied).

The Fox News Channel’s Hannity & Colmes were particularly devoted to sifting through the thorny legal issues left in Smith’s wake. But it was CNN’s Paula Zahn who came closest to accusing the public of outright hypocrisy.

In a February 16 segment in which she noted that 71% of the respondents to a poll said they were not interested in the blonde bombshell, Zahn called the story “America’s newest guilty pleasure,” adding, “don’t bother denying it. We’ve seen the ratings, we’ve watched the magazines fly off the rack. We know millions of you are out there.”

When not busy with Anna Nicole, even cable managed to devote 9% of it airtime to Iran last week. What made it such a big story when it had been percolating for weeks before? The subject was stoked at a February 11 briefing in Baghdad, in which U. S. military officials ratcheted up the heat by accusing Iran’s leaders of providing weapons that killed scores of U.S. and allied troops in Iraq. The situation was muddied two days later when Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace publicly cast doubts on whether the evidence proved that the government in Teheran was directly involved in those weapons shipments.

Given that backdrop and the February 13 New York Time piece, the subject became a main agenda item at Bush’s February 14 press conference. In response to a battery of questions about Iran, the President fueled the coverage by stating that while it might be unclear whether “the head leaders of Iran” ordered the bombs to be sent into Iraq, “what matters is…they’re there.”

“When we find the networks that are enabling these weapons to end up in Iraq, we will deal with them,” he added. A good chunk of the subsequent coverage stressed the confrontational nature of those remarks, and quick denunciations of them by people like Hillary Clinton that day on the Senate floor.

Iran might have been an even bigger story had it not been for the House’s February 16 passage of a resolution critical of Bush’s Iraq strategy. The vote pushed coverage of the policy debate up late in the week. Meanwhile, coverage of the bloodshed inside Iraq (fifth biggest story) focused largely on the security crackdown in Baghdad and the question of whether Iraqi cleric al-Sadr had fled or moved to Iran. War-related events on the home front finished ninth at 2%, thanks to the administration’s announcement that it would accept 7,000 Iraqi refugees.

In the Presidential race, the No. 2 story of the week, the focus was the February 13 entrance into the campaign of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, which triggered a media debate about the impact of his Mormon religion and his rightward shift on some key wedge issues.

If mixed messages and a fight with Democrats fueled the coverage of Iran, it was the question of political opportunism that the media were exploring with Romney.

Romney’s potential problems were highlighted on the February 13 edition of conservative host Tucker Carlson’s MSNBC show. While a screen caption asked the question “Will Romney’s flip-flopping kill his chances in 2008?”, Carlson put it slightly more diplomatically by noting that the candidate is “facing questions on his newly transformed positions on abortion, gay marriage, the economy among…other issues.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ