In a number of recent presidential campaigns, someone or something has emerged from obscurity to become a household word and an integral part of the media narrative. In the 1988 race it was a Massachusetts criminal named Willie Horton, and four years later, it was a former television reporter turned singer named Gennifer Flowers. In 2004, the name in the headlines was a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. This year, at least so far, the newsmaker from nowhere is Chicago minister Jeremiah Wright.
Last week—as Wright re-emerged into full public view to speak to PBS’ Bill Moyers, the NAACP and the National Press Club—the controversy he generated made more news than both Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Clinton was a significant or dominant factor in 41% of the campaign stories and McCain registered in 14% of them. Meanwhile the relationship between Wright and his former parishioner Obama accounted for 42% of the week’s campaign coverage. Obama, who moved to decisively denounce Wright last week, was the significant or dominant newsmaker in 69% of the stories, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index for April 28-May 4.
These coverage numbers are strikingly similar to those from March 17-23 when Wright’s inflammatory statements about race and the U.S. triggered the first Obama damage control effort, including a major March 18 speech on race relations. That week, the Wright-Obama story line accounted for 37% of the campaign stories and Obama dominated coverage at 72%. Clinton (at 30%) and McCain (17%) were virtual afterthoughts.
As the primary voting has slowed, the media have focused on a number of Democratic campaign controversies—from Clinton’s erroneous recollection about dodging snipers in Bosnia to Obama’s remarks about economically disadvantaged Americans being “bitter.” But none have had the staying power of the Wright flap. In the period from March 17 through May 4, the Wright-Obama story line made up 17%, or one out of six, of all the campaign stories studied. And last week saw the biggest spike yet in that coverage.
There were significant policy issues at play in last week’s Democratic campaign leading up to the May 6 primaries in North Carolina and Indiana. Clinton and Obama sparred over how to handle Iran and the proposed gas-tax holiday. The issue of gas prices accounted for the second-biggest category of campaign stories last week at 7%. And the next biggest chunk of campaign coverage, at 5%, was Indiana superdelegate and former Democratic National Committee chair Joe Andrews switching his support from Clinton to Obama.
But even after combining the gas and the Andrews coverage, that is less than one-third of the attention paid last week to Wright.
Read the full report The Pastor’s Press Tour is the Week’s Big Newsmaker on the Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.