Were These Two Guys in the Same Room?

Were the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler and the New York Times’s Steven R. Weisman watching the same Karen Hughes address the same crowd of women at the same Saudi Arabian university yesterday?

By comparing their respective accounts of the event (which we did, thanks to an eagle-eyed CJR Daily reader), you wouldn’t think so.

According to the Timesaccount — headlined, “Saudi Women Have Message for U.S. Envoy” — “the response on Tuesday was not what [Hughes] and her aides expected,” and “when Ms. Hughes expressed the hope here that Saudi women would be able to drive and ‘fully participate in society’ much as they do in her country, many challenged her. ‘The general image of the Arab woman is that she isn’t happy,’ one audience member said. ‘Well, we’re pretty happy.’ The room … resounded with applause.”

In the Post’s version, it was Hughes doing all the challenging (“Undersecretary of Sate Karen Hughes questioned Tuesday the Saudi ban on driving by women …”) and Hughes receiving the applause (“Women in the audience applauded after [Hughes] mentioned that they should have a greater voice in the political system, including eventually receiving the right to vote.”) And the Post’s headline could have come straight off a White House press release: “Hughes Raises Driving Ban With Saudis. More Political Freedom for Women Also Urged.” (The only hint readers get that there was any discord is a strangely out-of-place, passing mention in the sixth paragraph of “the tables [being] turned … in meeting with Saudi students, journalists and officials,” with no elaboration thereafter).

What gives? Was this “an unpredictable encounter in a carefully staged trip” as the Times reports, or was it a pleasant-if-forgettable moment in a carefully staged trip that went off without a hitch, as the Post story would have readers believe?

A quick look at the way a couple of other news organizations reported on the event corroborates the Times’ take.

“Indignant Saudi women turned the tables on Karen Hughes,” writes Guy Dinmore of the Financial Times, in a piece headlined “Saudi Students Rebuff U.S. Communcations Guru.” ABC News’ Jonathan Karl, too, appears to have attended the same event as the Times, reporting today that Hughes got an “earful,” that Hughes “wanted to talk about America’s image in the Arab world [but] the woman hammered her instead with question after question about the negative portrayal of Saudis in the U.S.” Karl also reports the following: “During the session, one student suggested the United States name a ‘minister of media’ to deal with inaccuracies and bias in the media.”

Looks like this could be a case for the Post’s own “minister of media.” Michael Getler, that’s your cue.

Liz Cox Barrrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.