PEJ Campaign Coverage Index: April 14 - 20, 2008, Obama and Clinton Debate the Debate

Apr 22, 2008

Last week, a major part of the media narrative about the 2008 campaign involved the media themselves—specifically ABC’s Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos and the April 16 debate they moderated in Philadelphia.

Two major story lines drove press coverage in the last full week before the long-awaited Democratic Pennsylvania primary. The first was continued fallout over Obama’s remarks that some economically struggling citizens get “bitter” and “cling” to guns or religion. That subject accounted for 25% of all the campaign coverage last week.

The second major story line, which accounted for another 22% of the coverage, was the ABC debate, which sparked its own debate over whether Obama bore the brunt of too many gaffe and “gotcha” questions. Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales, among the critical reviewers, criticized the moderators’ performances as “shoddy” and “despicable.” New York Times columnist David Brooks spoke for the opposing view when he lauded the questions, declaring that the “journalist’s job is to make politicians uncomfortable.”

In either event, the controversy marked the clearest example of the media being injected into the middle of the campaign since the much-criticized Feb. 21 New York Times story suggesting an improper relationship between John McCain and a female lobbyist. 

 Given his central involvement in both major story lines, Obama was the top newsmaker according to the Campaign Coverage Index from April 14-20. He was a significant or dominant factor in 76% of the campaign stories, a large leap from the previous week when he registered at 46%. Clinton, at 59%, trailed Obama, but even that was up a bit from her 56% total a week earlier.

After watching his media coverage climb recently, GOP candidate John McCain fell back to 24% last week, a drop of 11 points from the week before. (All told, the Democrats generated almost six times as many stories as the Republicans last week.) For McCain, that coverage was mixed. He received substantial attention for the economic plan he unveiled on April 15. But as the week went on, McCain found himself dealing not with fiscal policy, but with two lingering personal issues—his age and his temper. 

By filling 31% of the overall newshole as measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index for April 14-20, the campaign bounced back from the previous week, when it accounted for only 23%—the low water mark in 2008. It was the top story in four of the five media sectors, with the Pope’s visit topping the online coverage. And once again, the election story was driven by the intense coverage on cable—where it accounted for 51% of the airtime studied—and radio, where it filled 39%.

Read the full report Obama and Clinton Debate the Debate on the Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.

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