Last week, Barack Obama tried his hand at media criticism. At a town hall meeting in Montana, the President accused TV news of focusing on town hall meetings when “tempers flare” because television “loves a ruckus.” Whether that critique was accurate or not, there were enough flaring tempers and raucous ruckuses last week to generate the biggest single week of health care coverage so far this year. And that coverage was virtually non-stop on conflict-driven cable news, which became ground zero for town hall confrontations across the country.
From August 10-16, the debate over health care reform dominated the news agenda, accounting for 32% of the newshole, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. That doubled the amount of coverage the subject received the previous week, according to PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index, and easily tops what had been the highest level of weekly coverage this year, (25% the week of July 20-26). While the topic was the No. 1 story in three of the five media sectors, it was clearly driven by massive coverage on cable (62%) and radio (44%).
News consumers watched as Senators such as Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter and Maryland’s Ben Cardin faced hostile, shouting town hall crowds. The term “death panels” entered the media vernacular and William Kostric, a man walking outside Obama’s New Hampshire town hall meeting with a gun strapped to his thigh, got his 15 minutes of fame. Death threats, swastikas, and comparisons with Hitler’s regime in Nazi Germany became part of the media narrative. Helping inflame passions, the ideological talkers on cable and radio spent the week lobbing rhetorical grenades at their foes.
Following the health care debate, coverage of the economy (12%) was a distant second. The escalating conflict in Afghanistan was No. 3, at 6%. The fallout from the Hudson River air accident was next at 4%, followed by the death of Eunice Kennedy Shriver (2%), founder of the Special Olympics and younger sister of John F. Kennedy.
Read the full report Anger and Rancor Fuel Cable’s Health Care Coverage on the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.