For Obama’s Vegas Visit, Competing Press Angles

As Sun explores natural gas agenda, Review-Journal delves into the "briar patch"

This post has been updated since it was first published to include discussion of the first Review-Journal story.

NEVADA — President Obama came to Las Vegas Thursday to promote his energy agenda in a state with a wealth of alternative energy sources—solar, wind, and geothermal. And befitting a presidential visit, especially one just nine months before a general election, the Las Vegas media did a thorough job covering the event—right down to details about the environmentally-friendly hotel where Obama slept and the pizza and cannoli on which he dined.

But the coverage was full of juxtapositions that reflected different choices made by the local press corps—some wiser than others.

Nevada’s largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, ran an advance story that did a decent job explaining Obama’s plan to promote alternative fuels for industrial use, though the paper spent as much time focusing on politics as policy.

The emphasis shifted even more in that direction for the visit itself. The Review-Journal dispatched political reporter Laura Myers to cover Obama’s speech at a United Parcel Service facility, where he touted the company’s conversion of part of its truck fleet from diesel to natural gas.

But the Review-Journal’s report, which sprawled across the front page and two inside pages of Friday’s print edition, seemed to consider Obama’s remarks and his policy program of secondary interest. By the third paragraph, Myers had diverted down a side street to focus on the political context:

But outside the UPS plant where he talked up alternative fuels—such as the liquefied natural gas used by the delivery company’s long-haul trucks—a political briar patch awaited.

The Nevada Republican Party slammed Obama for “blowing a bunch of taxpayer money to campaign in Vegas.” A conservative think tank mocked the president in a videotape that showed Obama’s motorcade of “22 fossil-fueled vehicles” leaving the clean energy event for the airport.

“Priceless,” a narrator said on the video from the Nevada Policy Research Institute [a conservative think tank].

And U.S. Reps. Joe Heck and Mark Amodei, the state’s two GOP congressmen, held a news conference after Obama’s 10 a.m. speech to knock the president for not doing more to create jobs in Nevada and help ease the home foreclosure crisis.

This is all valid fodder, and the economy and housing crisis are surely atop voters’ minds here. But the “briar patch” is one that Myers—or her editor—helped to create, by looking for controversy and placing it at the top of the story. In the process, they obscured both Obama’s energy agenda and any substantive critique of it.

The Review-Journal ’s jaundiced view did pay off with a little scene that showed message management at work at the event:

Asked whether he would vote for Obama again in 2012, Reynoso said, “It’s all up in the air.”

A UPS supervisor then pulled Reynoso away and told him not to finish the conversation. Company officials explained that only authorized workers were allowed to speak to reporters.

“She’s my boss. I gotta go,” Reynoso said without explaining his doubts about Obama.

The city’s other local paper, the Las Vegas Sun, offered a basic “meat and potatoes,” inverted pyramid-style article about the speech that foregrounded Obama’s energy program. While the Review-Journal went too far in search of conflict, the Sun’s story probably errs in the other direction—some balance from those who weren’t wooed by the speech, or the policy, would have been helpful.

That said, the Sun provided by far the most comprehensive coverage, beginning with a strong pre-visit story by its Washington correspondent, Karoun Demirjian, in which she explained the importance of Las Vegas to Obama’s energy agenda:

The company [UPS], in cooperation with local governments and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, won a $5.6 million cost-share investment through the stimulus bill to purchase a fleet of trucks that could run on liquefied natural gas (LNG is a cleaner-burning fuel than regular gas or diesel) and construct a publicly accessible LNG refueling station—the first of its kind in the country.

The natural gas-fueled corridor allows UPS to move merchandise through more energy-efficient engines from Long Beach, Calif., to Salt Lake City, according to senior White House advisers.

It’s a model the president wants to replicate in other areas of the country as well, primarily by upping the incentives to get the country’s transport vehicles off gasoline.

It’s this sort of explanatory and analytical writing at which the Sun often shines. And while in this case the White House was no doubt happy to cooperate, Demirijian’s story also noted obstacles to Obama’s program, and pointed to one reason the president might be eager to talk about natural gas rather than solar energy in Nevada. (In a Friday column, the Review-Journal’s John L. Smith offered another pertinent fact that throws some cold water on Obama’s natural gas enthusiasm: while UPS has converted about 2,500 trucks to natural gas or other clean-burning fuels, its fleet numbers nearly 94,000.)

The Sun’s coverage also included a contribution by columnist J. Patrick Coolican, who snared a brief interview with the CEO of UPS that he mined for some insights about the national political scene, and a column by Jon Ralston, who observed that local Democrats are keeping their distance from the president.

There was only one big problem with the Sun’s coverage, and it’s a huge one for those who don’t have computer access or prefer their news in print: the majority of the paper’s stories appeared only online. Friday’s print edition carried Ralston’s column, a full page of color photos, and a top-of-page-one headline—“Southern Nevada welcomes President Barack Obama”—that was followed by two bland sentences of text and this advisory: “For complete coverage, visit” Yes, we most certainly live in a digital world.

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Jay Jones is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who has covered political campaigns for various media outlets in the U.S. and for the BBC in the U.K.