Debate moderators should facilitate, not fact-check

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Fact-Checkers

The inclusion of “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace as one of the moderators for this fall’s presidential debates sparked a firestorm when he told colleague and media reporter Howard Kurtz that it wasn’t his job as a moderator to fact-check the candidates during the actual debate.

I do not believe that it is my job to be a truth squad. It’s up to the other person to catch them on that. I certainly am going to try to maintain some reasonable semblance of equal time. If one of them is filibustering, I’m going to try to break in respectfully and give the other person a chance to talk. But I really want it to be about them — I want it to be as much of a debate.

Wallace, the first person from Fox News to be selected to moderate a presidential debate, got some heavyweight support last week from Jim Lehrer and Bob Schieffer. At a panel at the University of Notre Dame, the two longtime journalists–who have moderated a total of 15 presidential debates between them–said that fact-checking isn’t a debate moderator’s role.

“You’re not a judge,” Schieffer added, “you’re a moderator.”

Journalists and academics weigh in

On Twitter, former AP White House correspondent Ron Fournier has been one of the most vocal proponents of the idea that moderators should aggressively fact-check the candidates during the debate.

Former New York Times public editor and now media reporter for The Washington Post wrote that moderators should “be well-prepared enough to assert the truth in real time.”

Over at The Conversation, journalism professor Ryan J. Thomas wrote during the primary campaign that leaving fact-checking up to the candidates was a disservice to the public.

Claims of fact that are verifiable must surely be challenged or clarified. A moderator who allows assertions to go unchallenged, or who relies on other candidates to do the work of fact-checking on his or her behalf, is failing the viewing audience.

These arguments would be a lot more influential if it weren’t for a couple inconvenient facts.

The Crowley Experience

Fact-Checkers

Candy Crowley in the 2012 Obama-Romney debate.

In the second presidential debate in 2012 between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, moderator Candy Crowley set up Romney for a fall.

Approximately two weeks before the debate, on CNN’s “State of the Union” hosted by Crowley, she asked Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a question which showed an understanding that President Obama had not promptly called the Benghazi attack that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead a terror attack.

“Why do you think and are you bothered that it has taken them this long from September 11th to now [Sept. 28] to get to this conclusion?,” Crowley asked McCain.

After McCain answered that the Obama administration did not immediately want to admit it was a terrorist attack because it would interfere “with the depiction that the administration is trying to convey that al Qaeda is on the wane, that everything is fine in the Middle East.”

Between that interview and the presidential debate Crowley moderated, it’s clear that someone attempted to correct Crowley’s initial, correct, impression that President Obama was loath to call the Benghazi attack terrorism.

Crowley had been prepped. Whether it had been someone from the Obama White House who had reached out to her (National Security spokesman Tommy Vietor actually wrote Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler to push a similar alternate history on Obama’s use of the word “terrorism” for Benghazi) or a fellow journalist who argued that there was a plausible way to read President Obama’s Rose Garden statement as calling the Benghazi attack an act of terror we’ll never know. But it’s clear that Crowley’s analysis changed.

Republicans called foul and Democrats rallied around a textual analysis seemed to boil down to the fact that talking about terrorism and the Benghazi attack in the same speech was the same as calling Benghazi a terrorist attack.

Given a day or two to analyze the facts, even the self-appointed fact-checkers failed to come to a consensus on what the truth was. Politifact.com gave Romney a half-true saying that Obama did call it a terrorist attack the next day, but dinging Obama and his administration for avoiding calling it terrorism again for the next two weeks.

The Washington Post’s Kessler was less charitable to Obama.

Obama is correct that, in the day or two after the attack, he did use phrasing such as “act of terror,” though it was more vague than he implied in the debate. Moreover, he then dropped the phrase and for at least a week the administration pushed a narrative that tied the attack as a spontaneous reaction to the video, rather than a terrorist attack.

Meanwhile, Romney is correct that it took at least two weeks for Obama to forthrightly call it a terrorist attack (a statement that came via his spokesman).

The president’s desire to reach back to his initial “act of terror” statements appears to be an effort to mitigate that politically uncomfortable fact.

A follow-up fact-check in 2013 on this same subject earned Obama four Pinocchios from Kessler.

But it’s clear that Crowley’s fact check wasn’t the slam-dunk-obvious fact that she thought it was.

Don’t trust the media or the self-appointed fact-checkers

In the fact-checking that occurred after the Crowley-moderated debate, CBS News released a clip from a “60 Minutes” interview conducted just 12 hours after that Rose Garden statement that appears to back up President Obama’s claim that he had called the Benghazi attack terrorism.

But that wasn’t all of the story. It turns out that CBS News had in its possession the dispositive evidence—evidence it sat on until just two days before the election.

Immediately before the portion of the 60 Minutes interview released weeks earlier, President Obama had been asked point-blank about Libya and terrorism.

KROFT: Mr. President, this morning you went out of your way to avoid the use of the word terrorism in connection with the Libya Attack, do you believe that this was a terrorism attack?

OBAMA: Well it’s too early to tell exactly how this came about, what group was involved, but obviously it was an attack on Americans. And we are going to be working with the Libyan government to make sure that we bring these folks to justice, one way or the other.

As Fox News’ Bret Baier observed:

Right after getting out of the Rose Garden, where, according to the second debate and other accounts he definitively called the attack terrorism, Obama is asked point blank about not calling it terrorism. He blinks and does not push back.

And CBS sat on it.

Fact-checkers can’t keep their stories straight.

Despite the authority they pretend to have, fact-checking is far too often opinion masquerading as science. And, since the majority of fact-checkers are liberal journalists … well, you see where this is going.

In 2011, Vice President Joe Biden was making the rounds decrying budget cuts that led to fewer cops on the beat and, he claimed, led to more rapes and murders.

The Washington Post’s fact checker called the claim “absurd.” Factcheck.org, run by the Associated Press, called it a “whopper.” Pulitzer-Prize winner Politifact called it “Mostly True.”

Even within the same organization, remarkably similar claims can get different rulings. In 2011, Politifact dinged Mitt Romney with a false for noting the Obama “recovery” from the 2008 recession was “the slowest job recovery since Hoover.” That earned a “false.”

Florida GOP Senate candidate Adam Hanser made a very similar claim but managed to earn a “mostly true.”

And don’t even get started with Politifact’s 2012 half-true on Obama’s claim that if you like your health insurance plan, you can keep it becoming their “Lie of the Year” for 2013.

Whose ox is more likely to get gored?

PolitifactBias.com does an analysis every year of Politifact’s two lowest rankings for honesty, “false” and “pants-on-fire.” The only difference between the two ratings is that the latter “makes a ridiculous claim.”

Who decides what’s “ridiculous?” Politifact’s editors and reporters. Are members of the two major political parties equally likely to make ridiculous statements? No, year after year, according to PolitifactBias.com’s research, Republicans are far more likely to earn the pants on fire moniker than their Democratic counterparts.

And why wouldn’t they? They’re professional reporters who come from the same milieu that produced the news earlier this year that not a single White House reporter is a Republican.

Two years ago, a survey of journalists showed that just 7 percent identified as Republican.

In an interview a decade ago with radio host Hugh Hewitt, longtime Washington Post senior political reporter put the number at between 15 and 25 Democratic reporters for every 1 Republican one.

In this ideological bubble, when a moderator decides to step out of their role of facilitating a back-and-forth between the two candidates and become a fact-checker, whose ox is more likely to get gored?

Is the moderator-cum-fact-checker going to be more familiar with the work of former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy on the subject of Hillary Clinton’s emails or will they be influenced by the calls from many of their media colleagues that Donald Trump is a uniquely dangerous individual and his candidacy is a civic emergency that must be prevented?

The call for moderators to shed their historical role as facilitators and become fact-checkers is an effort to affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in the favor of one dishonest, corrupt, lying, grifting huckster of a candidate over the other.

Chris Wallace is right that it’s not his job. The other moderators should follow suit.

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