The Media's "Debt" Overload

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

If it seems that news coverage of the government's decision to raise the debt ceiling this year goes far beyond previous coverage when the debt ceiling was raised, that's because it has. And if it seems that the conservative movement has been able to force the media to pay attention to precisely what they want them to (i.e. the debt ceiling), that's because conservatives have.

The fact is, the press is suffering from "debt" overload, and conservatives are likely quite pleased.

After all, it was the Tea Party that embraced the radical idea of the U.S. defaulting on its debt, and catapulted the once-obscure fiscal issue to media superstardom, with news outlets now drowning consumers with "debt ceiling" coverage.

But here's the thing: The government previously raised the debt ceiling in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, and twice in 2008. And in each of those years Beltway journalists covered the issue rather modestly. But in 2011, the topic has become one of the most-covered of the year. In 2011, the press is devoting nearly twenty times as time and attention to the issue than it did in previous years.

It's true there's more debate and political wrangling over the issue this time around, which means there's more news to cover. But that still doesn't explain the off-the-charts saturation the story has received in 2011.

Take a look.

Through just the first five months of 2011, there have been nearly 2,000 U.S. newspaper articles or columns that mention "debt ceiling," while on television, for example, CNN has aired 230 segments that have mentioned the topic. That, according to a "federal" "debt ceiling" search on Nexis.

By comparison, for the entire year of 2008, there were only 136 newspaper mentions and just 22 CNN hits. And that's how the issue, prior to this year, was generally covered:

-2008: 136 newspaper, 22 CNN

-2007: 91 newspaper, 4 CNN

-2006: 286 newspaper, 11 CNN

-2004: 276 newspaper, 21 CNN

-2003: 222 newspaper, 5 CNN

-2002: 309 newspaper, 15 CNN

Over the last decade, and during years when the debt ceiling was raised, the average number of newspaper mentions was 220, while CNN usually aired 13 reports on the topic.

Yet less than halfway through 2011, the newspaper total is already nine times that average, while the CNN count has increased nearly 20 fold. (If you were to extend the current rate of coverage through the end of the year, the newspaper and CNN increases would be even more substantial.)

As the debt ceiling coverage motors on, it's worth noting that the Beltway press has adopted an entirely new and aggressive standard for covering this story. And yes, it's a story conservatives very much want front and center.

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