The downfall of talk show host Don Imus for racist and misogynistic comments was the second most-heavily covered story of the year to date, according to the PEJ’s weekly study of the agenda of the American news media.

From his attempted redemption on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio show to the fallout over his firing by NBC and CBS, the controversy over Imus’s insults about the Rutgers’s women’s basketball team filled more than a quarter of the newshole (26%) of PEJ’s News Coverage Index for the week of April 8 to 13.

Only the debate over American war policy with Iraq when the President announced his “surge” plan the week of January 7 to 12 got more media coverage this year. It filled 34% of the newshole in our index that week.

Nothing else this year has come close to capturing the media’s attention at this level. The next biggest story of the year, the controversy over the firing of U.S. Attorneys, filled 18% of the newshole the week of March 18 to 23. The takeover by Democrats of Congress reached 15% the first week of the year. Several stories, including the presidential campaign and the State of the Union speech, have gone as high as 13% in a given week. The Anna Nicole Smith story has never exceeded 10% of the total newshole.

Last week, April 8 through 13, the second-biggest story was events on the ground in Iraq (10% of the newshole). That was followed by the Duke University lacrosse scandal (7%), the Iraq war policy debate (5%), and discussion of U.S. immigration policy (5%).

The Imus story cut across every media sector, though it was particularly powerful on cable news. By week’s end, the story had taken up nearly half of all the time on the three cable news channels (48%). That exceeds any story on cable all year for a full week. As a source of comparison, the Anna Nicole Smith story, another cable favorite, made up 50% of cable time the two days after she died, but never exceeded 26% for a full week. The Imus story filled 39% of the radio newshole last week, and 25% of the time on network evening and morning news programs.

Last week was also only the second time that events in Iraq itself surpassed the policy debate here at home as the focus of the coverage of the conflict. One reason was that early in the week marked the fourth anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein. The end of the week was dominated by the bombing of the cafeteria in the Iraqi parliament building inside the so-called “Green Zone” of Baghdad, an area previously considered safe.

Another Iraq story last week was the decision to extend deployments of U.S. troops from 12 months to 15. The Washington Post led on Thursday with the headline, “Strained Army Extends Tours to 15 Months: Move is Needed for Iraq Troop Increase.” The story tended to bleed across questions of the effect on the homefront and the policy. If all three elements of the Iraq story were combined—policy debate, homefront and events on the ground—they made up 17% of the newshole last week, still far from the Imus controversy.

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.)

If the Imus story seemed to reflect a national conversation about race and misogyny, the Duke lacrosse story was framed as one about the American justice system, and to some lesser extent about media rush to judgment. As ABC’s Jim Avila opened his segment on the case, he described, “It was though the scales of justice were tipped in one day. The state attorney general telling the accused they should never have been charged, and those who accused them – they should think about apologizing.”

The Imus mess was not a big story immediately. Imus started all this on April 4, when he referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team, which was made up mostly of African American young women as “nappy headed ho’s.” The reference was in comparison to the Tennessee women’s team Rutgers played for the national championship, which was more heavily Caucasian. Imus himself did not seem to think the comments damaging. He said on air the next day that he didn’t know why people should be offended by “some idiot comment meant to be amusing.” By Friday, Imus had changed his tone and took time on his radio show to apologize for his “insensitive and ill-conceived remark.”

Yet that change of heart could not be attributed to heavy media attention those first few days. Within PEJ’s news universe of 48 different news outlets, there was only a single story on Imus comment between the time he made the remarks (April 4) and the end of that Friday, April 6: a 3-minute report on CNN’s Situation Room Friday evening.

That changed on Monday April 9, when Imus appeared on the radio program hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton in New York. Soon after the highly publicized appearance, all three of the network evening newscasts reported on Imus’s saga, with both NBC’s Nightly News and CBS’s Evening News choosing to lead with the Imus controversy. The same night on cable, CNN’s Paula Zahn Now, Fox News’s Hannity and Colmes, and MSNBC’s Scarborough Country all devoted practically their entire first 30 minutes to the Imus controversy.

Several key ingredients seemed to combine to make the Imus story something that seized the media imagination.

First, the story had new substantive developments each day of the week—several that came with TV visuals. The confrontation with Sharpton was the first of these. What ABC’s Dan Harris described as Imus’s “contrition-mission”—Imus himself said, “Our agenda is to try and be funny, and sometimes we go too far”—turned bad for the talk show host after Sharpton continued to be tough. At one point Imus exclaimed, “I can’t get anyplace with you people.” (Imus then explained that he was referring specifically to Sharpton and those on his show, not any larger group.)

In the coverage that followed, several news organizations picked up on the moment that Sharpton brought out his daughter, a recent graduate of Temple University, and told Imus, “She in not a nappy-headed ho; she’s my daughter.”

The following day, Tuesday, April 10, the Rutgers women’s team weighed in with a widely publicized press conference. “Our moment here was taken away, our moment to celebrate our success,” sophomore Heather Zurich told the cameras.

A day later, several major advertisers such as American Express and General Motors announced they would no longer sponsor the Imus program. Late in the day, NBC announced it would drop the television simulcast of Imus’s show entirely on its cable channel MSNBC. On Thursday, CBS announced it was cancelling Imus’s radio program.

The second factor driving the Imus story was that his program had prominent celebrity guests from the worlds of media and politics, many of whom felt obliged to weigh in. As Newsweek’s Howard Fineman put it on Imus’s Monday April 9 show, while urging him to meet with the Rutgers team, “You know, all of us who do your show, you know, we’re part of the gang. And we rely on you the way you rely on us. So, you know, you’re taking all of us with you when you go out there to meet with them.”

The list of Imus regulars who felt compelled to comment in included Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe (he expressed “solidarity”), NBC anchor Brian Williams on his blog (who admitted to a conflict of interest), Presidential Candidate John McCain (who called for “redemption) and CBS’s Bob Schieffer (“If it were anyone else, I wouldn’t have anything to do with them. But I’m not going to sever a relationship with someone who has apologized for what he said. He’s my friend.)

Soon others were weighing in as well, from Barack Obama on ABC News (“He didn’t just cross the line, he fed into some of the worst stereotypes that my two young daughters are having to deal with today in America”), to Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Tom Delay and Whoopi Goldberg. Even President Bush offered up when his spokeswoman Dana Perino said, “The president believed that the apology was the absolute right thing to do…And beyond that, I think that his employer is going to have to make a decision about any action that they take based on it.”

There was also history here—a record of comments by Imus about race and gender. Imus had once referred to PBS’s Gwen Ifill, also African American, as a “cleaning lady,” and New York Times columnist William Rhoden, also Black, as a “quota hire.” Imus had also made repeated references to Arabs as “ragheads” and some women as “skanks.” CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a 10-year-old profile on Imus that even then noted the offensive nature of some of his humor.

The Imus story also seemed to connect at least in the press coverage with larger social themes about race, gender, the nature of civil discourse in America, the question of whether it was appropriate for different ethnic groups to talk about themselves internally in ways that were not acceptable generally, and whether there were double standards because of the discourse in comedy and rap music.

On his radio program, Sean Hannity asked, “If the term is that offensive, well, why haven’t they, meaning Sharpton and [Jesse] Jackson, why haven’t they been out protesting the repeated references and worse, by some of the music artists that are out there?”

On MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, guest John Ridley argued, “You can flip over to MTV or BET and see rap music videos made by black people objectifying black women as video ho’s.”

Finally, the Imus story was also simple to understand. A viewer, listener or reader could grasp the controversy and have a strong opinion after less than a minute of hearing Imus’s initial remark and one of his several attempts at apologizing.

The relative compactness of the Imus story made it perfect for a media culture quick to move from facts to talk, and for members of the media to express judgments about the situation and its impact on media as a whole.

In announcing his decision to drop Imus, NBC News President Steve Capus suggested that conversation had even influenced the network. “I think there has been some very interesting conversation going on in this country about what’s appropriate, about race relations, and I hope that conversation goes forward….And when you start looking at all of the body of work and everything that was said all through the years, at some point you have to say, ‘enough is enough.’”

And as the week ended, the conversation had turned to whether Imus was a victim of political correctness or whether other media people should lose their jobs.

Basketball owner Mark Cuban wrote on his blog, “If the Imus show was on [Cuban’s television network] HDNET would I have fired him? Hell no. I would have expected him to apologize, but he would have kept his job. Firing him would just get him a job on HBO.”

Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, seeing a double standard, also suggested during a campaign stop in Iowa that perhaps the story was not over yet. “If Imus is going to get fired, then there’s a lot of other people that need to go out the door. Rosie [O’Donnell] has probably got to go. Bill Maher has to go. Gosh, half of talk radio and television has to go.”

Tom Rosenstiel, Paul Hitlin, and Hong Ji of PEJ

Note: Due to a technical error, Friday's edition of the Chattanooga Times Free Press was not included in this week's sample.