PEJ Campaign Coverage Index: July 7 - 13, 2008, Gaffes Drove the Campaign Narrative Last Week

Jul 15, 2008

If the Rev. Jesse Jackson feared his own historic runs at the presidency in 1984 and 1988 were being ignored this year in coverage of the presumed Democratic nominee Barack Obama, he need worry no longer. But be careful what you wish for.

Jackson’s derogatory remarks about Obama, made when he thought he was off camera and off mike while preparing to appear on a Fox News program, was the biggest campaign storyline in the media last week, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Campaign Coverage Index.

And as the media portrayed the incident, in which Jackson sharply criticized Obama for suggesting that black men need to take more responsibility for their unwed children, it may well have proven to be a boon to Obama, not to Jackson.

It was not the only statement by a non-candidate to steer the campaign narrative last week. The comments by John McCain economic advisor, former Senator Phil Gramm, that the country’s economic problems are mostly a “mental recession” in the minds of whiny consumers, was the second-biggest storyline last week. Indeed, together the two gaffes comprised nearly a quarter of the campaign coverage studied (23%).

One other trend to emerge last week was that Democrat Obama again received more coverage than Republican McCain. Obama was at least a significant presence in fully 77% of the campaign stories studied, compared with 48% for McCain. Obama has led in coverage in all five weeks since the race narrowed to two presumptive nominees. A week earlier, that gap narrowed to 11 points and offered the prospect that the coverage might equalize, but last week suggested that might not be the case. If this trend continues, it hints that the media narrative could make this race largely a referendum about Obama and whether the country is willing to make him the next President, with John McCain playing the role of the alternative.

The Jackson brouhaha filled 13% of the campaign narrative studied last week. The Gramm remarks filled 10%. The other top campaign storylines last week in the media narrative were the economy (which was connected to the Gramm statements). It filled 8% of the newshole studied. Next came coverage of Obama moving to the ideological center on issues (8%). That was followed by competition for the country’s Hispanic vote (4%), Iran as an issue (mostly the response to that country’s missile tests), and divisions among Democrats (mostly relating to the retirement of Clinton’s campaign debt).

Overall, the campaign filled 29% of the newshole studied by PEJ last week. For the year to date the campaign has accounted for 37% of the overall newshole.

Read the full report Gaffes Drove the Campaign Narrative Last Week on the Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.

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