Last week, the media narrative for a complex economic crisis got much simpler. The coverage focused on one corporate villain and one angry public.
With news of the AIG bonuses driving that narrative, the economic crisis generated its highest level of weekly coverage to date. From March 16-22, it filled 53% of the newshole according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. That not only marks a major increase over the previous week (35% of the newshole). It is the highest level of weekly coverage for any story other than the 2008 presidential campaign since PEJ started its News Coverage Index in January 2007.
As further evidence of the week's lopsided news coverage, the No. 2 story, turmoil inside Pakistan, was all the way back at 3% of the newshole.
The catalyst for last week's news agenda was the revelation that failing insurance giant AIG—which had received about $180 billion in bailout funds—was paying out $165 million in bonuses. As fallout spread from Capitol Hill to the Connecticut homes of AIG officials, the bonus story accounted for more than half the economic crisis coverage. And the overarching theme was outrage.
“A.I.G. is a P.I.G.,” shouted the front page headline of the New York Daily News as a U.S. Senator suggested the company's executives either resign or “go commit suicide.”
There were some alternative voices in the press, such as the New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin who wrote that, “Maybe we have to swallow hard and pay up, partly for our own good.” But that view was eclipsed in coverage that also tried to assess the collateral political damage, particularly to President Obama and his beleaguered Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
In one clear marker of how thoroughly the AIG story permeated the media landscape, Tonight host Jay Leno had barely exchanged pleasantries with Obama on his March 19 show when he dove straight into the subject. “I know you are angry—because, you know, doing what I do, you kind of study body language a little bit,” he told Obama. “And you looked very angry about these bonuses. Actually, stunned.”
Read the full report One Story Dominates: AIG in the Crosshairs on the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.