Call it one of those were these reporters watching the same debate? moments.
According to The New York Times’ account of last night’s Democratic debate in Philadelphia (per Adam Nagourney and Elisabeth Bumiller):
Mrs. Clinton smiled far less frequently than she had in earlier debates, often looking grim as she turned her head from Mr. Edwards to her right to Mr. Obama on her left.
(The photo accompanying the article shows a serious, almost-frowning Clinton).
But Los Angelenos get a much sunnier view this morning, per the Los Angeles Times’ Mark Z. Barabak and Peter Nicholas:
…the New York senator smiled through most of the two-hour session, often seconding the views of others on stage and joining the laughter during an attack on Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani.
(The photo alongside this article shows a laughing, gesticulating Clinton).
So depending on which big-media, tag-team account a voter reads, the takeaway is either that Senator Clinton appeared battered and gloomy (East Coast take) or that she remained buoyant and smiling (West Coast take).
Overall, The New York Times depicts the debate as much rougher on Clinton (and more dramatic! And tide-turning!) than does the LA Times. Compare the leads. New York Times:
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York came under withering attack from the rest of the Democratic presidential field last night in a pitched two-hour debate that her opponents used to challenge her candor and electability and to portray her as enabling President Bush to prepare for an invasion of Iran.
Trailing in national polls and with supporters growing restless, Barack Obama challenged Hillary Rodham Clinton’s electability and candor in a spirited Tuesday night debate. But he failed to rattle the front-runner or do much, it seemed, to shake up the Democratic race.
Withering attack or left unrattled?
Moreover, according to the LA Times, “The only person on stage who appeared to leave Clinton unnerved was co-moderator Tim Russert.” (Meanwhile, The New York Times ranked Russert as Clinton’s “third toughest opponent on the stage.”)
What of The Washington Post? The Post’s account is less dramatic than The New York Times’ take (Clinton came “under fire,” the debate was the “liveliest” yet) and makes no specific mention of Clinton’s demeanor (more or fewer smiles)?
Other differences in coverage:
According to the LA Times, “The sharpest exchange centered on suggestions that Clinton was too divisive to win the White House.” But The Washington Post reports that “the most pointed back-and-forth came over Iran.” (The New York Times account doesn’t explicitly single out a “sharpest” or “most pointed” moment.)
And then there was the discussion of licenses for illegal immigrants, which The New York Times reported high in its piece (fourth graf):
At one point, [Clinton] appeared to say she supported an attempt by Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, a plan he abandoned in the face of fierce opposition. A moment later she backed off, leading her opponents to denounce her again for obfuscating.
The Washington Post ranked this “the most telling exchange” of the debate (“telling” of what, exactly? This seems like a loaded word stuck in the middle of a “straight” news piece). Here is the Post’s entire sentence:
The most telling exchange came minutes before the debate ended, when Clinton declined to answer repeated questions about whether she supports New York Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer’s proposal to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, after earlier suggesting that she does.
Meanwhile, the LA Times didn’t find this moment particularly critical (let alone “telling”), giving it passing mention toward the end of its piece:
Clinton was similarly vague on other issues. She said a home-state proposal to give drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants ‘makes a lot of sense’ but stopped short of an endorsement.
Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.
How telling, these differences in the telling. Not in the sense that one reporter’s emphasis is more or less legitimate than another’s, but rather in how clearly it puts the lie to anyone who suggests that journalists can (or should) cover the news “straight.”