PEJ Campaign Coverage Index: April 21 - 27, 2008, Post-Pennsylvania Spin Drowns Out McCain

Apr 29, 2008

The week began with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton bashing each other with negative TV ads on the eve of the Pennsylvania primary. It ended with the prospect of a longer, tougher contest after Clinton’s win, and with the volatile issue of race again occupying a prominent place in the media narrative.

Given that the coverage of the crucial April 22 Pennsylvania vote accounted for 53% of all the campaign stories, last week’s election news was utterly dominated by the Democrats. Obama was a dominant or significant newsmaker in 70% of the campaign stories, according to PEJ’s Campaign Coverage Index for April 21-27. Clinton was close behind at 64%, generating her highest level of media attention this year. (Bill Clinton accounted for another 3%).

In one sign of what was at stake for Democrats in Pennsylvania, a post-primary spin war erupted over Clinton’s actual margin of victory—and whether it reached the magic double-digit mark some pundits set as the yardstick for a big win for her. On April 23, a Huffington Post blogger wrote that “The official results for last night’s debate as of 12 noon Eastern time are: Hillary Clinton - 1,258,278 (54.7 percent) Barack Obama - 1,042,573 (45.3 percent)…When you subtract 45.3 from 54.7 you get 9.4.The last time I checked my use of statistical analysis, 9.4 isn't 10…So, why is the mainstream media reporting that Hillary won by "double digits?”

As the week rolled on, the Pennsylvania results spawned another story line: How big a factor is race playing in Obama’s problems with blue-collar Democrats? The recurring racial angle in this campaign was also rekindled by the resurfacing of Obama’s controversial former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose interview with PBS host Bill Moyers quickly circulated throughout the media, making him a significant or dominant factor in 7% of the coverage.

John McCain embarked on a tour of economically hard-hit areas of the nation last week and made some news with his harsh criticism of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. But overshadowed by events in Pennsylvania, McCain’s coverage continued its recent downward trajectory, dropping to 17% from 24% the previous week and from 35% the week of April 7-13.

Despite McCain’s struggle for attention, coverage of the campaign filled 44% of the newshole as measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index for April 21-27. That marked the highest level of weekly coverage since March 3-9, the period that included the key primary contests in Ohio and Texas. Once again, cable was the media sector that devoted the greatest proportion of its newshole—in this case 74% of the airtime studied—to the campaign. To illustrate how completely the race for the White House drove the media agenda last week, the second-biggest story—the troubled U.S. economy —accounted for only 4% of the overall newshole.

Read the full report Post-Pennsylvania Spin Drowns Out McCain on the Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.

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