According to a study released by the nonpartisan Project for Excellence in Journalism, the amount of time dedicated to the three top stories of the first quarter of 2007 (Iraq, 2008 campaign, Anna Nicole Smith) each received different amounts of coverage on the three U.S. cable news networks. Iraq was the top story on all three networks, but the amount of time spent on the war varied among them.

MSNBC spent 31% of the airtime studied in the survey on the Iraq war. 26% of this time was spent on the policy debate, 3% on events on the ground and 2% on the home front. Over at CNN 25% of the studied time was spent on the war. 14% of the air time on CNN was spent on the policy debate, 7% on events on the ground, and 3% on the home front. On Fox News, only 15% of the studied airtime was spent on Iraq. Of this, 10% was spent on the policy debate, 3% on events on the ground, and 1% on the home front.

MSNBC also gave the most coverage to the 2008 presidential campaign. 14% of their coverage was dedicated to next year’s election. Fox News spent 9% of their airtime in the study on the campaign, and CNN devoted only 7%. So if Fox was giving less coverage to Iraq and the 2008 campaign, what were they covering? According to the numbers, they were covering Anna Nicole Smith more than their two competitors. Fox devoted 10% of their studied coverage to Anna Nicole. MSNBC devoted 6% and CNN 4% respectively. Fox News also spent the least amount of time on the firing of the U.S. attorneys. They spent 2% of their airtime on the story, while CNN spent twice that, and MSNBC four times that amount of time.

Interestingly enough 55% of MSNBC’s total studied coverage was spent on four political stories, the Iraq policy debate, the 2008 campaign, the fired U.S. attorneys, and the Valerie Plame leak/Scooter Libby trial. Nine stories took up 49% of CNN’s coverage. Eleven stories took up 49% of Fox News’ coverage. A study such as this one is useful to the viewer because it tells you what the editorial priorities of each network are. MSNBC is more interested in politics and policy. CNN’s coverage is more diverse, but that is probably due to CNN having more international resources than their competition. Fox News wears its conservative bias on its sleeve, but these are hard times for conservatives, so Fox seems to be trying to hold viewers by doing more celebrity and crime coverage.

The one thing that really jumps out me about these numbers is how little coverage we Americans get from our cable news networks about what is going on, on the ground in Iraq. Not one of the networks devoted 10% of their coverage of Iraq to events on the ground. This tells me that the self censorship of events on the ground remains strong. Also, none of the networks are interested in what is happening on the home front.

It is a little surprising that Fox News gave so much of their coverage to Anna Nicole, but they had to cover something instead of Iraq. We all know that the  presidential campaign coverage will only continue to grow. I wouldn’t be surprised if the campaign isn’t dominating the coverage at MSNBC by the end of the year. This study demonstrates that the three cable networks aren’t alike, but they all have a weakness for celebrity news, and a distaste for telling the whole story about Iraq.

Link to the PEJ study

Jason Easley is the editor of the politics zone at  His news column The Political Universe appears on Tuesdays and Fridays at

Jason can also be heard every Sunday at 6:30 pm (ET) as the host of The Political Universe Radio Show at
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