Back on January 9, in PEJ’s inaugural News Coverage Index, the biggest story was the swearing in of the new Democratic Congress with the first female House Speaker in U.S. history. 

But a week later, the debate over President Bush’s new Iraq “surge” policy emerged as the dominant news subject. And by late January, the new legislature had disappeared from the list of 10 most covered stories.   

But even if the new Congress has largely vanished as a subject, the shift in control of the legislative machinery has had a major impact on the news agenda. The reason was succinctly explained in this March 18 David Broder column: “Ten weeks into the new Congress, it is clear that revelation, not legislation, is going to be its real product,” he wrote. “Democrats find it easier to investigate than legislate.”

That was certainly borne out in the media last week, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index for March 11 to 16. Four of the top 10 stories were fueled by the new-found investigative power of Democrats on Capitol Hill. 

The top story—the spiraling scandal over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys (filling 16% of the newshole)—has been driven by Congressional hearings and further threats of subpoenas. The fifth biggest story—the Iraq war at home, which includes the continuing Walter Reed Hospital fallout (4%)—was given dramatic impetus by the impassioned Congressional testimony of vets and their loved ones. Former CIA operative Valerie Plame’s March 16 Capitol Hill testimony became last week’s ninth biggest story (at 2%). 

And the battle over Iraq strategy (third place at 7%) is deeply intertwined with attempts by the Congress—which has already taken testimony from top defense officials—to roll back Bush’s surge strategy. 

Added together, the four stories in which the new Congress played a significant role accounted for 29% of the overall coverage last week. That doesn’t include the second-biggest story—the 2008 Presidential race (at 9%)—which does happen to feature a number of legislators on both sides of the aisle. In the meantime, two other major stories last week offered, alternately, good and bad news for the current Oval Office occupant. The fourth biggest story (domestic terrorism at 6%), was fueled by revelations that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had confessed to planning a number of major attacks, a fresh reminder of the terrorist threat that is at the heart of Bush’s foreign policy. Conversely, the President’s trip to Latin American (seventh story at 3%) was marred by violent protests that shadowed him and dictated the tone of coverage.  

While there were some differences in the top five stories in each media sector, the U.S. attorneys investigation was the most covered subject online (22%), on network TV (20%), cable TV (17%) and radio (15%). Only the front-page newspaper coverage reflected different news judgment as it devoted the most space (11%) to the 2008 Presidential race.

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.)

The top story last week, the controversy over the alleged firing of U.S. attorneys on political grounds, appeared to explode on the scene. It jumped to 16% of the coverage from 2% in the previous Index. But it was actually a slow-simmering story (or a “tale that congealed in slow motion” as the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz wrote).  The story was pieced together over several months from local papers with a blog playing the role of clearing house, reporter, and dot connector—in this case liberal blogger Joshua Micah Marshall’s Talking Points Memo.  

One memorable moment was fired prosecutor David Iglesias’s March 6 Congressional testimony that he “felt sick” after getting a phone call from Senator Pete Domenici asking about the timing of indictments in a corruption case. 

What propelled the story last week were two things the national media thrive on—the release of juicy emails in response to Congressional pressure and an administration official who made himself available in a charm offensive designed to try and defuse the crisis and perhaps save his job.  

On March 13, a beleaguered Attorney General Alberto Gonzales publicly admitted to mistakes in how the issue was handled, but declined to offer his resignation.  The next morning, his media tour took him to the “Today” show.  While insisting that “the firings were not politically motivated,” he told a prosecutorial-sounding Matt Lauer that “I am responsible for what happened here,” and that his future would “be a decision for the President to make.”    

By the end of the week, Democrats were threatening more subpoenas, Washington was wondering whether the near-mythical Karl Rove would testify, and the ground underneath Gonzales seemed soggier.  

Greeting rising viewers on the March 16 edition of CBS’s “Early Show,” correspondent Bill Plante did not mince words in saying that “influential Republicans around the White House…say [Gonzales is] finished, he’s a problem, he has to go.”

In addition to the U.S. Attorney flap, several other of the week’s top stories were driven by breaking events. The dramatic news of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s confession of culpability in everything from the 9/11 attack to a plot to kill Jimmy Carter was released by the Defense Department on March 14. And it came in the middle of a difficult news cycle for the administration.

For the second week in a row, the President’s Latin American trip was a top-10 story, but angry protesters often commandeered the headlines. The old issue of gays in the military was resurrected as the eighth biggest story (3%) when Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace ignited a furor by describing homosexuality as immoral. Problems in the mortgage market, slowing retail sales, and rising inflation turned the nation’s economic numbers into the 10th biggest story at 2%.

And there wasn’t much good news for the administration in the expanding investigation into problems with the treatment of wounded veterans, which was now in its fourth week as a major running story, according to the NCI. The big news last week was the ousting of Army Surgeon General Kevin Kiley from that post, as he became the third major Army official to lose his job in the wake of the Walter Reed scandal. When it came to the Iraq strategy debate, the White House earned a split decision from Congress, as a House committee passed a resolution setting a withdrawal deadline from Iraq while the full Senate defeated a somewhat similar measure.

One shadowy figure thrust into the middle of the Iraq war debate got her moment in the media spotlight by testifying before Congress on March 16. Valerie Plame—the outed CIA agent and central issue in the trial that convicted vice-presidential aide Scooter Libby—spoke her piece in what ABC news anchor Charles Gibson called “a dramatic scene on Capitol Hill.”

This too, seemed to be a result of Democratic Party control, since it is less likely she would have been invited to testify and embarrass the Administration had Republicans been in charge. (Most of them didn’t show up to hear her testimony.)

“My name and identity were carelessly and recklessly abused by senior government officials in both the White House and State Department,” said Plame in her most memorable sound bite.

Her one day of testimony was enough to become a top 10 story.  

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ