The Debate Shuffle

Pick a storyline, any storyline

Since April 2007, by my count, the Democrats have met to debate 18 times. As someone who has watched nearly all of these outings—and nearly all those on the other side of the aisle—I’m pretty sympathetic to journalists who, with editors steaming for copy, must find something (anything!) to say after each event.

Still, reading The New York Times’ coverage of last night’s Austin meeting was downright schizophrenic.

Let’s start with Michael Powell, giving his impressions in a “Reporter’s Notebook” piece:

…the debate itself was mostly a remarkably polite affair, a blur of my friend, my colleague. —“Tit for Tat on a Night Where Spin Is Master” [All emphasis is mine]

Downright neighborly, it seems. Or maybe not—here’s what Alessandra Stanley wrote in her “TV Watch” column:

a stiff, somewhat clinical debate… They sat side by side as they did in Los Angeles three weeks ago, but their demeanor was less warm and much more wary. —“Clinton and Obama Debate Once More, and Does It Matter?

Huh. That doesn’t sound so nice. Maybe the front-page piece, by Jeff Zelney and Patrick Healy, can settle this one. Pretty please?

Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama veered from collegial to clenched and combative in a debate on Thursday, with Mrs. Clinton turning especially aggressive as she all but accused Mr. Obama of plagiarism and derided his political message as “change you can Xerox. ” —“Debate Takes On Contentious Air

Alrighty. So neither warm nor stiff, but mostly mean. That’s certainly the most dramatic way to frame the story.

I’m going to take an obvious cop out, and stipulate that the truth is somewhere in between all these takes. (And I’ll admit that the Times articles carried requisite, but diminutive hedges.) Across the night, there were flashes of nice, nasty, null, and none of the above. Sometimes these things—even big, splashy, highly-anticipated debates—end up being ambiguous and dull.

So why not just say that?

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.