Wright Dominated News Coverage
May 6, 2008
Now it’s been quantified. If you thought the news media had been giving lopsided coverage to the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Senator Barack Obama’s former pastor, you would be correct.
Mr. Wright even got more exposure than Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Mr. Wright dominated 42 percent of political stories last week, from April 28 to May 4, according to a survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which uses empirical methods to analyze news coverage.
The retired pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago returned to the forefront of the news after making a series of public appearances during the last week in April, causing more controversy with renewed affirmation of remarks he had made in the past.
According to the survey, Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama’s rival, was the central figure in 41 percent of the articles. The study regularly examines 48 news sources (15 cable television programs, 13 daily newspapers, 8 radio programs, 7 network television programs and 5 Web sites).
Mr. Wright also completely overshadowed the next-most covered campaign issue, which was the gas tax — the central topic in just 7 percent of political stories.
The dominance of Mr. Wright swelled the overall coverage of Mr. Obama, who denounced the pastor last week, to 69 percent of all political stories.
This focus left Senator John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee, on the sidelines, with a significant presence in just 14 percent of stories.
(It may seem as if Bill Clinton was also a big topic, but he accounted for only 2.2 percent of the coverage.)
This is the second, though nonconsecutive, week in which Mr. Wright drew the lion’s share of media attention, receiving extraordinary play over an unusually lengthy period for something that started out as a side issue.
Obama supporters contend that the coverage has been self-perpetuating, particularly on cable television, where Mr. Wright’s words are replayed in an endless loop and then interpreted by pundits as a major setback to Mr. Obama. Indeed, his polling numbers have fallen since Mr. Wright gained notoriety in mid-March, when Mr. Obama moved to quell concern about his inflammatory statements and delivered a major speech on race, on March 18.
In the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll, a majority of voters said the furor over the relationship between the two had not affected their opinion of Mr. Obama, but a substantial number said it could influence voters in the fall.
During the week of March 17 to 23, the Wright-Obama story line accounted for 37 percent of the campaign stories, the survey said. That made Mr. Obama the central figure in 72 percent of political stories that week, close to the highest level of coverage of any figure during the campaign.
The only state to vote since the emergence of Mr. Wright was Pennsylvania, which was perceived as a stronghold for Mrs. Clinton anyway. She won by more than nine percentage points, but exit polls indicated weakness for Mr. Obama among white, working-class voters. The votes today in Indiana and North Carolina will be the first since Mr. Wright reignited coverage last week with a string of interviews that caused Mr. Obama to break with him entirely.
Stories last week focused on the political damage Mr. Wright had caused for Mr. Obama. Then, as often happens with such media obsessions, the narrative circled back to focus on the media itself and whether it had gone overboard.
Kenneth F. Bunting, associate publisher of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote last week, “Barack Obama’s forceful denunciation and disavowal of his former pastor doesn’t change the fact that it is an irrelevant distraction entirely created by cable television pundits using out-of-context and skewed sound bites.”
Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist, told CNN that voters “think that Reverend Wright has been used as an ax to destroy or diminish Senator Obama and to divide people unnecessarily, in this country, at a time when we are at war and we’re trying to get our economy back on track.”
Over all, news of the campaign accounted for 38 percent of all news coverage last week, according to the survey. The second most-covered story was the economy, at 10 percent.