The Democratic race has been relatively “issue-free” to date. Maybe that’s why when the candidates do get bogged down in policy details and something newsworthy happens, many reporters miss it, or misconstrue it.

One of the most interesting moments in last night’s debate came when moderator Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times drew attention to a seeming contradiction in Sen. John Kerry’s position on gay marriage.

Brownstein referred to a speech Kerry had given on the Senate floor in 1996, during the debate over the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages and allows each state to ignore any such marriages performed in another state.

Back then, Kerry voted against DOMA, believing the law to be unconstitutional.

Brownstein, asked: “… if the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, isn’t President Bush right, that the only way to guarantee that no state has to recognize a gay marriage performed in any other state is a federal constitutional amendment?”

Kerry answered, “… I think, under the full faith and credit laws, that I was incorrect in that statement. I think, in fact, that no state has to recognize something that is against their public policy.”

When Brownstein then asked whether Kerry would vote for DOMA today, Kerry didn’t answer directly, saying, “The Defense of Marriage Act is the law of the land today.”

Nedra Pickler of the Associated Press slips up in rendering the exchange. She tells us, incorrectly, that when asked by Brownstein why he opposed DOMA in 1996, Kerry, “directly contradicting a claim made by Bush … said the Constitution does not require states to recognize gay marriage licenses granted elsewhere in the country.”

Kerry did say that, but not in response to a question about his 1996 vote on DOMA. In fact, that answer came in response to Brownstein’s subsequent question, which was: “If the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, isn’t President Bush right, that the only way to guarantee that no state has to recognize a gay marriage performed in any other state is a federal constitutional amendment?”

A reader of Pickler’s piece would come away with the impression that Kerry answered Brownstein with a complete non sequitur. In fact, Kerry’s responses were confusing, but did ultimately make logical sense, if you accept his admission that he now considers DOMA constitutional.

Patrick Healy of the Boston Globe takes a different approach in a piece headed, ironically, “Gay Marriage Dominates Debate.” Healy skips the entire controversy over Kerry’s 1996 vote on DOMA. But he does at least paint Kerry’s current position correctly. Healy tells us simply that, “Kerry, who opposes gay marriage but supports civil unions, accused Bush of proposing a federal constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage to win Republican votes, and said that Americans should allow the states to decide how to create arrangements for gay couples.”

Brownstein forced Kerry into an awkward moment. Some voters might view Kerry’s answers as a flip-flop. Others might be impressed by his willingness to admit error. But given the amount of coverage dedicated in recent days to the gay marriage debate, Kerry’s maneuver — his admission of error in his earlier reading of the Constitution, and his refusal to be pinned down on DOMA — represented a newsworthy development, and may have been a preview of how he’ll handle Republican charges of hypocrisy on the issue if he wins the nomination. It was something readers deserved to know about.

But when the details got even a little bit complicated, Pickler misconstrued what was said, while Healy just skipped over it. That doesn’t bode well for their ability to clearly explain the nuances of the candidates’ policy positions as the race continues.

Zachary Roth

Update, 3/1, 12:50 p.m.: The above post has been changed to avoid suggesting that Sen. Kerry disavowed his vote on DOMA. In fact, he disavowed his position on DOMA’s constitutionality.

Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.