Candy Crowley was wrong. Here’s why.

- October 17th, 2012

In the Saturday Night Live skit, above, that pokes fun at President Obama’s lousy performance in the first presidential debate, there is a point — at 4:24 into the clip — when a daydreaming Obama is interrupted by the moderator who asks: “Mr. President: Governor Romney has has just said that he killed Osama bin Laden. Would you care to respond?”

That, in my view, is exactly how a debate moderator should respond when the moderator perceives a blatant falsehood has been put forward by a candidate. Simply ask the other candidate to respond.

By now, you may have heard, CNN Senior Political Correspondent Candy Crowley did not do that Tuesday night during the second presidential debate. Instead of allowing two candidates to argue a point, she simply pronounced that one was right and the other was wrong. She did this as Obama and Romney were going back and forth over what the president said or didn’t say in the wake of the Benghazi attacks that killed Ambassador Stevens. Crowley first jumped in — unprompted, she was asked by neither candidate to intercede —   to assert that Obama was right and Romney was wrong. Then, a minute later, as if that wasn’t enough, she asserted that Romney was right if only he had phrased it correctly. (Read the transcript here: You will note that neither candidate asked her to intervene though Obama, knowing a good thing when he heard it, asked Crowley to speak up and repeat what she had just said)

In my view, this was an inappropriate thing for Crowley to do. She crossed a line that moderators in debates in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere have, quite appropriately, never crossed. It does not matter if  Crowley was right (and we shall see in a minute that she was much less certain in her certitude after the debate) or what the subject matter at hand was. It was simply wrong for her to provide the audience with her conclusions on a point the two candidates were debating.

Crowley’s decision has sparked a lot of discussion on this topic, however, with many  suggesting moderators should do much more of this, that they should “fact-check” politicians in mid-debate and that, in any event, Crowley has a professional responsibility as a journalist to do just what she did.

I disagree and here’s why:

First: A journalist’s job is absolutely and unequivocally to “fact-check” and call out a politician if they misinterpret facts or get them wrong. And indeed, as the debate happened, dozens — perhaps hundreds — of journalists were doing just that often at live, online blogs and chatrooms staffed by fact-checking journalists. Journalists should never be criticized for this role.

That said, a journalist who takes the responsibility of moderating a debate  must, during the debate, recognize that that traditional role of fact-checking must be temporarily suspended or subsumed to the role of “moderator.” A moderator — whether that person is a journalist, an academic, a business leader or any other person — must make it an exclusive priority to facilitate the debate between the candidates and we must assume that each candidate will be prepared to challenge each other’s facts and interpretation.

Indeed, both presidential candidates were challenging each other very capably last night on many fronts.   And, from a practical standpoint, it would be placing an impossible burden on any moderator to constantly be ready to jump in to correct any and all facts. Reviewing some of the fact-checking live blogs put up by several news organizations last night, there appear to have been literally dozens of “facts” put forward by both men that ought to have been challenged if that is what we expect of a moderator. And, in any event,  then we would have even more instances of candidates engaging in arguments with the moderator rather than with each other .

Moreover, it would be impossible to find a moderator who could be so well-briefed on such a range of issues to fairly and adequately challenge dozens of points — and be right all the time.

To that last point — that Crowley was right to affirm that Obama did indeed say what he did and that Romney was right to score a point for the broader context — consider this exchange between CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and Crowley herself after the debate happened. Cooper asks Crowley about that moment when she jumped in to pronounce, with a great deal of certainty, that Romney was wrong on the narrow point but right on the broader point. In this exchange, she struggles to the point of incomprehensibility to defend her decision and she is clearly much less certain about who, in fact, was right and who was wrong.

This just underlines how difficult it can be for a moderator to make a pronouncement on what she perceived to an incorrect error of fact. Transcripts do indeed show that Obama used the phrase “act of terror” the day after the Benghazi attacks in the Rose Garden as Crowley points out but, if you read the entire transcript, it seems a reasonable point of debate about whether Obama was referring specifically to that attack when he used the phrase “act of terror”. And, as Romney was trying to say in the debate, the statements of Obama and other senior administration officials, notably UN Ambassador Susan Rice, make it seem even more a reasonable point-of-debate that the administration first blamed the attacks on the incendiary video and not an “act of terror.”  That’s why Crowley declared Romney right on that point and Obama wrong. (During the broadcast, it must be said, I, like the millions watching missed Crowley giving Romney a point because of all the cross-talk that popped up after her extraordinary intervention but the transcript is quite clear that she was America where right and wrong existed on this point.) In any event, Crowley’s intervention in the debate could have led a viewer to believe that Obama had, in fact, believed all along that the Benghazi attacks were planned ahead of time and carried out by terrorists when, as Crowley tries to explain in her conversation with Cooper, that point is hardly settled and may in fact be quite wrong. And, reading the transcript, Crowley is giving Republicans some comfort by agreeing — although not nearly so unequivocally as she did when giving Obama some cover — that the administration, as Crowley said during the broadcast, “ did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out.”

But what about an obvious falsehood like the one in the Saturday Night Live spoof? Moderators should trust, first, in the audience, that they will spot obvious falsehoods and react accordingly. The moderator’s line in the SNL skit is funny and generates laughter precisely because it is hilariously and blatantly false. Same thing in real life. Voters will laugh at whoppers that politicians try to trot out. I have a great respect for the intelligence of voters. They know a bonehead play when they see one and don’t need a moderator to have it pointed out to them.

Secondly, candidates should be expected to challenge and correct obvious falsehoods on their own. This, in fact, is an important component of debating, i.e. showing or proving that your opponent is incorrect and, in doing so, winning the debate. Candidates, of course, don’t always hold up their end of the bargain as we saw in the first debate when President Obama’s supporters were furious with their candidate for failing to challenge Governor Romney over what they perceived to be incorrect facts he presented. But just as it was not Jim Lehrer’s job to challenge Romney in that first debate simply because President Obama failed to do so, it was incorrect for Crowley to assert facts that contradicted what any of the candidates was saying in the second debate.

 

Categories: Journalism, US Politics

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6 comments

  1. David Church says:

    The counter arguments :
    - Far too many viewers get their “news” from pundits, bloggers and “News Networks” which present opinions and partial truths as absolute facts. For many, the debates are the only time they are presented with a full discussion of an issue. That discussion should be based on actual facts or at least an reasoned explanation of an opinion based on disputed events. I doubt that most Americans follow up the debates with fact checking from independent non-partisan fact checking organizations. If there is any public forum where misleading statements or incorrect statements of facts should not be allowed, it is probably Presidential Debates which preempt the programming on all American TV networks.
    - Candy Crowley has stated that she was simply trying to move the debate along and back to the specific topic at hand after several previous “He said” “No I didn’t” “Yes, you did” exchanges. It was already running late and the final questions did not receive their allocated time.
    - As a seasoned political journalist who presumably witnessed that Rose Garden statement first hand, IF a moderator should correct simple statements of fact then Crawley would be well qualified to do so. (As opposed to other moderators such as businessmen etc.)
    - It seems disingenuous to suggest that when the President uttered the words “act of terror” on the day after the Bengazi attack and during the same address when he spoke about that attack, that he was not calling the Bengazi an act of terror. He may have stopped short of calling it a preplanned terrorist attack, but that seems like semantics to me. But in the world of international security and foreign relations perhaps there is a distinction.
    - Candy Crawley clearly and immediately qualified her “fact check” by acknowledging that Romney was correct if his point was that it took two weeks for the administration to confirm the mob riots reacting to that Mohammed videotape simultaneously occurring throughout the Middle East were not a contributing factor in the Bengazi attack.

    Being moderator seems like a thankless damned if you do, damned if you don’t job.

  2. John Currey says:

    I had hoped Crowley would be the professional CNN keeps telling us she is.
    She failed by her totally unprofessional conduct and show of support for Obama. When her “chief”, Blitzer, said on CNN last night, “Candy, we are so proud of you.”, I nearly puked. CNN is just a shill organization for the ultra left in the US and represented by Obama and his band of Soros associates. jc

  3. Jeff Peacock says:

    The fact is that Crowley had stated a week before the debate happened that she wasn’t going to follow the rules of the debate set out for the moderator and then proceeded to do just that. In this forum, she was not supposed to ask follow-up questions or present new subjects. She was supposed to monitor the time and make sure that all the questions from the audience got equal time. As with almost all liberals, she felt like the rules didn’t apply to her and she did whatever she wanted and whatever she could to support Obama.

  4. Gabby in QC says:

    I commend you, Mr. Akin, for setting the record straight, even if it means saying that a fellow journalist “was wrong”. Candy Crowley’s intervention on Obama’s behalf is not surprising, as it happens on a regular basis whenever a liberal and a conservative are involved in a discussion or a debate.

    On the question of whether Obama’s “acts of terror” refers specifically to the attack on the Benghazi consulate:
    The President’s Sept. 12 statement in the Rose Garden is 13 paragraphs long. In the 4th paragraph, he says: “Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.” — a clear reference to the infamous video and the “senseless violence” i.e. mindless or purposeless violence that the video aroused. No allusion to “acts of terror” there.

    Then, in the 8th paragraph, Obama refers to the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US: “Of course, yesterday was already a painful day for our nation as we marked the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks.” Two paragraphs later, Obama says:
”No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.” Obama used the word “terror” NOT to characterize the attack on the Benghazi consulate but rather to those previous “acts of terror” — namely the 2001 attacks on the WTC, the Pentagon, and that field in Pennsylvania.

    Whether a seasoned journalist or just an average observer with a modicum of reading & listening comprehension, one cannot help but admit that Obama indeed was NOT referring to the Benghazi attack as an “act of terror” but rather as a spontaneous unplanned response to the anti-Muslim video.

    Crowley was thus wrong on two counts: on the facts and on intervening in support of Obama.

  5. Lee Moore says:

    David Church says : “It seems disingenuous to suggest that when the President uttered the words “act of terror” on the day after the Bengazi attack and during the same address when he spoke about that attack, that he was not calling the Bengazi an act of terror”

    Nine tenths of the political and diplomatic art is to say things in a way that can be interpreted by willing listeners in the way that you would like them to interpret it, without committing yourself to an explicit statement. Suppose now it was politically or diplomatically inconvenient, rather than convenient, for Obama’s Rose Garden remarks to be taken as a statement that Benghazi was a terrorist attack. If someone said “You called it a terrorist attack in the Rose Garden the day after !” Obama, or his spokesman, would be able to say “No, you misunderstood. I specifically did not refer to Benghazi as a terrorist attack, because that would have been jumping to conclusions, and we never do that. After discussing Benghazi, I went on to recall the terrible events of 9/11, the sacrifices our men and women in uniform were making and restated our continuing resolve never to be deterred by acts of terror. But the jury was still out on whether Benghazi was a terrorist attack and I took particular care not to label it as one.”

    It is not disingenuous at all to say that using the phrase “No acts of terror” in the same speech as he discusses Benghazi, but considerably later on, is not at all the same thing as labelling Benghazi as an act of terror. These speeches are written by clever people, and deliberately worded to give as much wriggle room as possible.

    The truth is that Obama did not label Benghazi as an act of terror in the Rose Garden. Instead he used words that allow you, now, to infer that that is what he meant. But they also allow you to infer that that is not what he meant. What he actually meant is a matter of legitimate dispute (I tend to the view that he didn’t mean to commit himself one way or the other, and that’s why the speech was worded that way.)

    I think Candy Crowley wasn’t trying to be biased when she intervened. She simply remembered that Obama had referred to acts of terror in his Rose Garden speech, and butted in to “correct” Romney as she would do on her TV show. But she thought she remembered Obama referring to Benghazi as an act of terror, when all she really remembered was the phrase “no acts of terror” – ie without an explicit connection to Benghazi. I think she realised instantly that she had screwed up which is why she then went on with the rather nervous muttering about Romney being essentially right. Everything since from her and CNN has been pure CYA.

    But as David Akin implies, even if this was just a screw up, it was not an innocent it could happen to anybody screw up. This was a negligent screw up, because it showed that she really hadn’t taken on board any of the pre-debate warnings about the difference between being a…

  6. Lee Moore says:

    moderator and a journalist.

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