Ladies and gentlemen, good evening.
It is one of life’s verities — as the “narratives” of the fourth estate rarely fail to remind us — that journalists tend to regard themselves as the guardians and escorts of civic progress and virtue. Thus freighted with a higher mission than most, they are naturally tempted to insert themselves right into the middle of the nation’s political debates. The more consequential, the better. That may go some distance toward explaining the mess we are in these days.
But for all the power of the pen, the keyboard, the microphone, and the TV cameras, it’s not often that a journalist has the opportunity to influence an American presidential election with the mere utterance of a single untruth.
Such a moment did, however, present itself to our first runner-up. And when it came, she did not flinch.
The selection committee of the Walter Duranty Prize for Journalistic Mendacity is pleased to bestow the award of first runner-up on CNN’s chief political correspondent, Candy Crowley, for her extraordinary performance during the 2012 presidential race as moderator of the second debate between the Democratic incumbent President Barack Obama, and the Republican contender, Governor Mitt Romney.
The moment of truth — or, more precisely, untruth — arose out of a question about Benghazi, Libya, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attack which had taken place there just over a month earlier. Questions were swirling around the administration’s attempts that September to blame what was clearly a terrorist attack on a spontaneous mob enraged by a “hateful video.”
In the debate, Mr. Obama claimed that in his remarks the morning after the attack he had called it “an act of terror” (which he had not). Mr. Romney, catching the president in a lie, challenged this revision of history.
And at that fraught moment, Ms. Crowley inserted herself directly into the debate, putting her thumb on the scale for Mr. Obama. The result was to throw the exchange in favor of the incumbent, and to sweep Benghazi, as an issue, out of the race.
What effect this had at the polls that November, we will never know. We do, however, wonder.
But let us provide more context. That September, in what appeared at that stage to be a hotly contested presidential race, Mr. Obama was running on foreign policy platform that included claims about the tide of war receding and al-Qaeda being on the run. On Sept. 11, heavily armed al Qaeda-linked terrorists delivered a nightmare contradiction to that narrative, attacking an American diplomatic compound and a nearby annex in Benghazi. In the attack, four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were murdered. It was the first time in 33 years that a serving American ambassador had been killed. On the 11th anniversary of the 2001 attacks on our nation, it was a terrorist attack, with links to al-Qaeda.
That same evening, Sept. 11, in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement implying that the attacks had been sparked by what came to be known as “the video.” She said: “Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.”
The next morning, before hitting the campaign trail to Las Vegas, Mr. Obama delivered his first public remarks on the attacks. Speaking from the White House Rose Garden, he echoed Ms. Clinton’s allusion to “the video.” He said: “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.”