In perhaps the most memorable segment of the second presidential debate, moderator Candy Crowley corrected Mitt Romney in support of the president, and to the uncouth applause of the off-camera audience and Mrs. Obama.
While the on-the-spot fact-checking may have pleased some viewers, it was a disservice to a fair and balanced debate. Crowley interjected with a technicality that handed Obama a victory.
We should first understand why Romney made the accusation. Obama made the first move, touting his leadership: “The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime.” (transcript of debate here)
Romney jumped on this remark to highlight something that has enraged conservatives and should have been a slam dunk against Obama: after the attack, the administration forcefully controlled the narrative to blame the deaths of Ambassador Christ Stevens and several other Americans on an anti-Islamic YouTube video, describing this as an act of protest. The attack was part of riots that were supposedly taking place, though we later learned there was no riot.
UN Ambassador Susan Rice made the rounds to numerous talk shows the following Sunday to clarify that “this was a spontaneous reaction to a video.” The phrasing here is important because the classification of a terrorist attack requires that it be premeditated. Obama himself repeatedly echoed Rice, taking a more aggressive tone toward the director of the video—who we later discovered is not even American—than the attackers themselves.
It took two weeks for the administration to admit, and the media to report, that this was a pre-planned Al Qaeda attack on a U.S. Consulate on the anniversary of September 11th. What should have been in bold letters across front pages everywhere became a mere correction to an old story.
When Romney charged that Obama took two weeks to finally admit it was a terrorist attack, Obama simply responded that Romney should “get the transcript.” Crowley cut Romney off to announce “he did in fact, sir.” And while I’m sure she was proud—and Team Obama was elated—to make Romney look foolish, the answer is not as clear-cut as she made it seem. Hence the confusion.
To cut through the fog: Obama did reference “senseless acts of terror” in a general sense toward the end of his Rose Garden address (transcript), then spent the next two weeks characterizing the Benghazi attack as everything but. Romney was wrong to say Obama didn’t use the word, but his point was still valid. Even Mrs. Crowley admitted as much immediately after the debate. Romney’s critique about the administration’s foot-dragging, lax security and misleading statements were worth noting and should have been taken seriously. But that’s not how the viewers perceived it.
Moderators are there to moderate, not fact-check. And there’s a reason. In the moment, when multiple angles and considerations are at play, you should let the candidate speak and evaluate statements more fully afterward. There is too much risk of A) cutting off the candidate before they’ve made themselves clear, B) getting the details wrong yourself, and C) appearing to support one candidate or the other.
Crowley hurt her reputation, and Romney’s for the short-term. But as more of this surfaces she may have done more damage to the Obama campaign by bringing some unsightly facts to light.