While the controversy over the Park 51 Islamic cultural center raged online and on network news, it barely made a dent in mainstream newspaper coverage. According to the Pew Research Center Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), while President Obama’s entry into the fray did help the coverage break through to the mainstream, it never quite got past cable’s talking heads.
According to PEJ’s News Coverage Index, which tracks coverage across media sectors weekly, this is what coverage of the “Ground Zero Mosque” debate looked like from August 16-22:
Nearly a third of the airtime studied on cable TV (29%) and one-quarter of that on radio (24%) was devoted to the topic. When straight-news programming from those sectors is removed, an analysis of cable and radio talk shows in the PEJ sample showed an even bigger fascination with the controversy: 45% of airtime, making it by far the biggest topic on those programs.
Online news outlets, meanwhile, devoted 10% of their newshole to the mosque controversy. Network TV, by contrast, devoted more time to Blagojevich’s legal troubles (11% of the airtime studied) and Pakistani flooding (also 11%), pushing the mosque story into third place for the week (9%). Newspapers devoted 3% of their newshole to the subject.
It’s clear that cable news programs seemed to fuel the mosque mania debate. Sean Hannity even called Obama’s support for the mosque a “pivitol mide-term issue” for Democrats, and Keith Olbermann referred to it as a “fake hysteria with the real danger of intolerance.” Olbermann’s point has certainly proved to be true.