Antique Media Revive Last Year's Story

(This is an op-ed version of a previous NewsBusters post.)

There’s an old rule of thumb in marketing – stick to what sells. Lately, America’s media have been doing just that.

Since the significant rebound in the President’s poll numbers from their October lows, coincident with a lack of outrage by the public concerning the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and domestic eavesdropping by the National Security Agency, the media have been downplaying current events, and, instead, focusing attention on last year’s big story that was largely responsible for Bush’s favorability decline in the first place.

In the past three days, the media have given more air time and print space to issues surrounding Hurricane Katrina, an event that occurred at the end of August 2005, than a one and a half-hour question and answer session in Kansas that the President held on Monday, and a one-hour address that the second most powerful intelligence figure in our nation gave the same day to the National Press Club concerning terrorist surveillance.

To be sure, this observation is by no means intended to minimize the significance of recent reports concerning what the White House knew or was informed of prior to Katrina making landfall, or how it has or hasn’t cooperated with Congressional investigations into the matter. Instead, what is at issue is the volume of reporting on the events surrounding a nearly five-month old natural disaster versus the gravity of national security issues in the middle of a war on terrorism.

This disparity in reporting is further compounded by the media’s absorption with NSA eavesdropping when the story was first released by the New York Times almost six weeks ago. It seems logical to expect that when the administration responsible for the activities that have been deemed heinous, illegal, and unconstitutional by the press for more than a month goes to open forums to address this issue, these same press outlets would be just as consumed with the answers being given today as they were with the questions they raised yesterday.

If only that were the case.

Just how skewed has the reporting been? Well, a Google news search of “Hurricane Katrina” produced 599 results. By contrast, a similar search of the term “Bush’s Kansas Speech” only yielded 554 results. The name “Hayden” – for Gen. Michael Hayden, the deputy director of National Intelligence – also yielded 554 results.

As for the major broadcast networks, the major cable news networks other than Fox News (including their websites), and NPR, the results were even more disparate. A LexisNexis search produced 64 results of the term “Hurricane Katrina” since Monday. By contrast, “Bush and Kansas” produced 58 reports, while “Hayden” only produced 28.

On the surface, the difference in these numbers might seem negligible. However, a close examination of how key media outlets reported both issues the past three days gave a more alarming picture of the disparity in coverage.

Certainly, one would have expected that the New York Times – the outlet that first broke the NSA story with a 3,633-word article on December 16, 2005, and has according to LexisNexis published 113 articles with the term “NSA” in it since – would have given a tremendous amount of attention to both of these speeches concerning this matter. Unfortunately, one would have been wrong.

Instead, on Tuesday, the New York Times ran a 1,280-word front-page story about Bush’s speech and Hayden’s address entitled “Administration Starts Weeklong Blitz in Defense of Eavesdropping Program.”  On Wednesday, they ran a 1,139–word front-page article that also addressed both speeches entitled “Gonzales Invokes Actions of Other Presidents in Defense of U.S. Spying.” This adds up to 2,419 words, or just two-thirds the space allocated by the Times to the article that started the entire controversy, and just a fraction of what the Times has devoted to issues surrounding the NSA since.

By contrast, since Sunday, the Times has published 20 articles referring to Hurricane Katrina, with seven of them just in the two days subsequent to the president’s appearance in Kansas. These seven articles totaled 4,501 words, or roughly twice what was devoted to the president’s speech.

Imagine that.

The Washington Post wasn’t much better, although, in fairness, it’s only published 102 NSA-related stories since December 16. Regardless, its Tuesday article about the Bush and Hayden speeches, “Aiming to Burst ‘Bubble’ Theory; President Takes Impromptu Audience Questions in Kansas,” wasn’t even on the front-page. Instead, the Post’s editors decided to stick it on page A4. The only other reference to these speeches came in a Wednesday editorial entitled “Contempt for Congress,” bringing the total number of words devoted to this issue by the Post to 1,779. By contrast, the Post has run three articles and three editorials addressing Hurricane Katrina in the past three days totaling 3,117 words.

The television media has been worse. Much like the New York Times and the Washington Post, CNN has been all over the NSA eavesdropping story airing 370 reports since December 16 containing the term “NSA.” Yet, it devoted only 32 reports since Monday that included the words “Bush and Kansas,” with eight of them either exclusively or tangentially addressing the comments made by the president concerning the movie Brokeback Mountain. By contrast, during the same period, CNN has done a total of 47 reports that included the term “Hurricane Katrina.” 

Finally, although it’s not a 24-hour news network, NBC has shown a tremendous appetite for this domestic spying issue by broadcasting 48 reports since December 16 that contained the term “NSA.” However, this interest seemed to die off when the administration chose to speak at length about this issue on Monday, as NBC only addressed the president’s speech on that evening’s installment of the Nightly News. In typical fashion, the Today Show did address the president’s speech the following Tuesday morning, but that was either to share with its viewers the question posed to the president concerning the film Brokeback Mountain, or in Ann Curry’s introduction of attorney general Alberto Gonzales. By contrast, the Nightly News did a piece on Hurricane Katrina both Monday and Tuesday evenings, while the Today Show covered Katrina on Monday.

When you add it all up, regardless of their fascination with NSA eavesdropping since it was first revealed, the press in the past couple of days were much more interested in reporting on a natural disaster that occurred almost five months ago instead of fully covering explanations by the President and the second highest ranking official in the intelligence community concerning warrantless wiretaps. Imagine that.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.