The presidential candidate forum in Carson City that Nevada Democrats had hoped would showcase the state and its issues was largely eclipsed last week by an extraneous dispute involving candidate Hillary Clinton.

Shortly before the forum, Clinton had demanded that rival Barack Obama repudiate comments critical of her and Bill Clinton made by movie producer David Geffen, an Obama supporter. By elevating the Geffen remarks into a dispute between herself and Obama, Clinton singlehandedly shifted the focus of national political news coverage from the Nevada forum to the Geffen “issue.” Though Clinton blandly insisted during the forum that she was staying positive, it was her spokespeople who attacked Obama. (Obama did not attend the forum.)

Even where the forum was reported, it was mainly in the context of its fast fade—the Clinton attack “shrank coverage of the first big Democratic forum in Nevada,” columnist E. J. Dionne noted. (Many of those in the audience had not heard of the Geffen matter and were puzzled by repeated references to it by moderator George Stephanopoulos. “Who’s Geffen?” was asked many times by audience members as they left the auditorium.)

With Clinton’s Geffen attack sucking all the oxygen out of the political atmosphere, the term overshadowed got a workout, as did synonyms for it.

“The punch and counterpunch overshadowed a gathering of all the Democratic candidates except Obama at a forum in Nevada,” reported the New York Times. “Clinton’s campaign allowed a dustup to occur that overshadowed her Nevada performance,” said the New West Notes blog. “This went on for the rest of the day and largely overshadowed a gathering of all the Democratic candidates (except Obama) in Nevada,” wrote Slate’s Daniel Politi. “An open argument between the Clinton and Obama camps overshadowed what was to have been a debate of the issues,” said a Cox News Service story. “The remarks largely upstaged the first forum of the 2008 primary,” reported Newsday. In a 33-paragraph story in the Los Angeles Times, the forum was not mentioned until paragraph 30—and then only in terms of Geffen.

On ABC’s evening news, of the thousands of words spoken by the candidates in Carson City, exactly 29 made it on the air—all of them Clinton’s, defending herself against a Geffen-related question.

The night of the forum, hits on Google for stories on the Geffen controversy swamped those for the forum in Carson City by well over two to one—and even the forum stories tended to focus on the Geffen dispute.

Within the state, however, there was blanket coverage of the forum, with many Nevada media outlets taking on such a tone of boosterism that they served as virtual arms of the Democratic Party, organized labor, and the state tourism commission. Few words of doubt or scrutiny toward the forum were allowed to appear in print or on-air, though the material was there.

Officials of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which sponsored the forum, defended themselves against suggestions that they were helping to push the start of campaigns earlier and earlier. Shortly after he arrived at the first-in-the-nation forum his union was sponsoring, AFSCME President Gerald McEntee told reporters, “It’s not us who’s doing it.”

AFSCME spokesperson Ethan Rome said, “The beginning of the presidential campaign cycle moves up, each cycle the campaigns begin earlier. There’s no question about that.”

But neither McEntee or Rome saw any linkage between the union’s early launch of its forums with the early start to the campaign.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...