A few weeks ago, I attended a panel discussion at the National Press Club where the heads of all of the major media 'fact checking' organizations participated. (I wrote about the event here.)
At that event, during the audience Q&A, a very earnest woman who identified herself as being from the League of Women Voters, stood up and asked what could be done to get fact checkers at the presidential debates. To their credit, the heads of PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, and the Washington Post and AP 'fact checkers' all agreed that fact checking the candidates in real time was tricky and probably not a good idea.
Sure enough, last night we saw a great example of why fact checking the candidates on stage is a bad idea. Obama supporters where pretty jubilant after Romney challenged him on the administration's unwillingness to acknowledge that the attack in Benghazi was a premiditated terror attack.
Obama claimed that he called it an "act of terror" in his Rose Garden speech the next day, but the context of the sppech doesn't appear to show that he was necessarily referring to the attack in Benghazi. In fact, Obama refused to label it as such in multiple instances after he gave that speech. Despite this Obama is regarded as having won the exchange after Crowley stepped in to say that yes Obama had used the phrase "act of terror", an opening the president promptly exploited.
From a debate perspective, it's clear that Romney did not handle the exchange as well as he could have. However, Crowley did quickly add that "It did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. [Romney is] correct about that.” And after the debate Crowley did even more backtracking, saying "Romney was right in the main, I just think he picked the wrong word."
So in order to clarify a minor point, Crowley got in the way of the larger truth. I don't think there was any agenda of bias behind Crowley's mishandling of this moment, but do recall that the Obama spin for why he lost the first debate was a lot of tendentious bluster about how Romney repeatedly lied. Whether she realized it or not, she may have felt some pressure in this regard not to give either candidate too much rope.
Regardless, it was clearly inappropriate of Crowley to insert herself into the debate here and undercut Romney. Crowley's misplaced instincts are certainly reflective of the pressure among journalists these days to fact check rather than accept "false balance," a journalistic term of art that is often code for "letting someone outside the left-of-center consensus get their point accross." On that point, see media critic Jay Rosen rather hilariously contradicting Crowley's own critical assessment of what happened:
The ironic thing is that Crowley inserting herself into the exchange may end up doing Obama no favors, even if he scored some debate points last night. The administration's narrative and the actual timeline of revelations about what happened are still very far from being reconciled. The incident last night will only bring more scrutiny to Obama's mishandling of the Bengahzi attack. And if Romney mishandled the question, he gets a do-over at the upcoming foreign policy debate next week.
But the bottom line is this: Obama's biggest debate "victory" last night only happened because a member of the media decided to -- wrongly -- run interference for him. As it is, journalists are often terrible at fact checking when they have plenty of time to reflect on what is said. Anyone who thinks the media can be trusted to "fact check" politicians in high pressure situations might want to rethink that idea in light of what happened last night.