The Cordoba Initiative Story and Its Journey Through the Media Ecosystem



In the political world, August is a time when controversial stories seem to gain traction. Last year it was the health care town halls. In 2008 it was any number of election-year stories (“drill, baby, drill” anyone?). This year’s story seems to be the “Ground Zero Mosque.” While it’s depressing on many levels, not least because it’s exposed in stark relief a vein of bigotry most Americans would rather not see, from a media analysis perspective it’s been fascinating to watch unfold. There are few stories in recent memory that have more starkly highlighted the way in which stories bubble up from partisan blogs into the mainstream agenda. Here at Media Cloud we decided to look at exactly how, when, and where this story grabbed hold and to try and understand what sort of unique language has been employed across the media landscape to describe the story.

Justin Elliott at Salon did some of the work for us, charting the first appearance of the community center in the news (a NYT article from December 2009) as well as some major milestones along the life of the story. By using those milestones as guideposts, we ran some searches in Media Cloud to see what else we could learn about how the story developed.

Unfortunately, our Media Cloud data won’t take us back as far as December, so we’re starting in May with the community board vote to approve the project and the subsequent launch of a campaign by blogger Pamela Geller of Atlas Shrugs to block the proposal:

US Popular Blogs week of 2010-05-03 on mosque



Top 25 Mainstream Media week of 2010-05-03 on mosque


For the time being, we’ll leave aside the apparent differences between blogs and MSM around discussion of mosques generally; on the surface it seems that blogs employ more extreme language than the MSM does, but we don’t have time here to dig into the particulars. Most of these stories are generic stories about national security, terrorism, etc. There’s some mention (“Faisal” and “Shahzad”) of the Times Square bomber, but the only story about the Cordoba Center is one from the New York Daily News which merely notes the project is moving forward. We find pretty much the same thing in the blogosphere that week.

The following week, which is the week Justin Elliott tells us is when Andrea Peyser denounces the project in her New York Post column, we start to see signs that the blogosphere is shifting its attention to this story. “Cordoba” and “Burlington” appear with some frequency, though at a lower intensity than controversial cleric Al-Awlaki, for instance:

US Popular Blogs week of 2010-05-10 on mosque

Those frequencies don’t appear in the mainstream media for that same week, which leads us to believe that this story percolated up through blogs into the MSM.

There is one clear moment when the MSM grabs onto this story, and that’s in mid-July when the Pied Piper of the political media, Sarah Palin, chimes in with her infamous tweet calling on moderate Muslims to “refudiate” the Cordoba project. During the week of July 12, just before Palin weighs in, the blogosphere was already abuzz with mentions of the story:

US Popular Blogs week of 2010-07-12 on mosque

The only mentions of the story in the MSM that week seem to be from New York papers (specifically the NY Daily News). Palin, seemingly tipped off to the story by the coverage in the blogosphere, weighs in on July 18 via Twitter. In the week that follows, we can see that the MSM has been drawn to the story largely due to Palin:

US Top 25 Mainstream Media week of 2010-07-19 on mosque

The total frequency of the word “mosque” in the top 25 MSM that week is 628, up from 377 the previous week. The blogosphere also picked up on Palin’s tweet, but notice that they also seem to be discussing the actual project (“Cordoba”) more than the MSM was:

US Popular Blogs week of 2010-07-19 on mosque

There also wasn’t a large spike in overall mentions (311 the week of July 12 and 333 the week of July 19) in the blogosphere as there was in the MSM meaning Palin’s tweet didn’t galvanize significantly more extra attention than was already being paid to the story without her input.

Barack Obama makes his first appearance in the cloud during the week of August 9, after his comments at the White House Iftar dinner defending the project:

US Top 25 Mainstream Media week of 2010-08-09

When you dig down into the stories that mention Obama in the context of “mosque” you find several articles that frame Obama’s comments in opposition to Republicans, and specifically Sarah Palin. One Newsweek article (which calls Palin’s entry into the fray “a tweet heard round the world”) claims that “Republicans running for election have seized on the mosque and Imam Rauf as symbols of what they see as President Obama’s inadequate and politically correct response to the terrorist threat.” MSNBC also assumed an oppositional frame with their article titled “Obama Slammed, Praised for Backing NYC Mosque.”

By the week of August 16, the story has clearly become framed in the MSM as relevant to the midterm elections:

US Top 25 Mainstream Media week of 2010-08-16 on mosque

There’s a small blip in the attention to this story on blogs during the week of August 9, but by the week of August 16 the conversation on blogs looks very similar to what’s happening in the MSM:

US Popular Blogs week of 2010-08-16 on mosque

During the week of August 23, the political frame remains in the MSM, but those stories are competing with reporting on the cabbie stabbing and the dueling rallies held in downtown Manhattan:

US Top 25 Mainstream Media week of 2010-08-23 on mosque

The coverage pattern on blogs takes an interesting shift during the week of August 23. We see that most of the coverage on blogs is now coming from the left and constitutes mostly critiques of how right-wing blogs and the MSM are covering the story:

US Popular Blogs week of 2010-08-23 on mosque

Most of these stories come from sites like Talking Points Memo, Huffington Post, Daily Kos, Crooks and Liars, and Media Matters. Coverage in right-wing blogs is very hard to find for this week.

As we can see from the graph at the top, coverage falls off a cliff the week of August 30. It’ll be interesting to see what sort of comeback the story makes in the wake of the Quran burning brouhaha in Florida and whether that coverage takes a decidedly campaign-focused turn now that we’re in the heat of election season.

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