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.