A working journalist's rant

I don’t know whether to be angry or depressed when I read this in a media trade publication:

Even though John Kerry couldn’t beat George W. Bush, somebody could–Anna Nicole Smith–according to the News Interest Index from the Pew Research Center.

According to a telephone survey of adults 18-plus, 38% said Smith was the name they had heard the most about in the news lately, with 28% naming Bush; they were followed by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at 3% apiece and Britney Spears and Nancy Pelosi at 1%.

Let me emphasize this is not a measure of what stories people are interested in, it’s a measure of what stories people say they’ve been exposed to.  Now in an ideal world, presidents (and other politicians) shouldn’t make much news because they shouldn’t be interfering in the economy, interfering with our personal freedoms, interfering with other countries.  But this is far from an ideal world, especially right now, as you can discern from any of the recent posts right below this one.  So one would think the media might take the actions of politicians a little more seriously.

But don’t get me wrong: Those actions do not include running for president.  Which brings up the next problem with the results of this survey.  Why, oh why, are we hearing so much so soon about the presidential campaign?  Four years ago at this time, the “Politics” queue of the Associated Press wires in my workplace was empty, and remained so for several months afterward.  But not this time around: There was no letup once the November midterms were done.  No sooner was the Virginia Senate race settled than it seemed the queue filled up with stories about prospective presidential candidates.  Enough already!  (Phillip Weiss theorizes it’s because people are so eager to move on from George W. Bush.  It’s as plausible an explanation as I can think of.)

But back to the numbers from that Pew survey.  We know what people say they’ve been most exposed to, but what are they most interested in?

According to the Pew interest poll, more people were interested in the Smith story (16%) than in the 2008 presidential campaign (9%), possible war with Iran (6%) or North Korea’s nuclear weapons (2%).

Still, for the seventh week in a row, the story the survey respondents said they were most interested in was Iraq at 26%.

I’m not sure if I believe this.  People like to tell pollsters things that make them look smart.  But viewership of the morning shows on the broadcast networks is down year-to-year, and one theory holds that it’s because people (especially the women age 25-54 targeted by those shows) are just too depressed by what’s going on in Iraq.

And on one level, who could blame them?