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.”
Mr. Obama did not call the horror in Benghazi a terrorist attack. In an artfully fudged bit of phrasing, the closest he came to the truth was to generalize, saying: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.” Fair enough. But sidestepping the carnage of the hour with an abstraction, coupled with the allusion to “the video” — that was a rather different message than if he had squarely informed the American public that Wednesday morning that four Americans had just died in a terrorist attack.
Instead, four days later, UN Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on five Sunday TV talk shows, blaming the Benghazi attack on a spontaneous mob infuriated by the “hateful video.”
Fast-forward to the Oct. 16 presidential debate. By that time, in the face of emerging details, the administration had been forced to concede that the Benghazi attack was an act of terror. The video narrative was looking less like a campaign-saving maneuver, and more like a campaign-damaging cover-up.
And in the debate — apparently trying to cover up the cover-up — Mr. Obama claimed that the day after the attack, speaking from the White House Rose Garden, he had called it “an act of terror.” Mr. Romney challenged this revision of history, saying “I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called it an act of terror.”
Mr. Obama replied: “Get the transcript.”
What he got instead was Candy Crowley. Shedding her role as moderator, she jumped in on Mr. Obama’s behalf with her own reply to Mr. Romney’s point — and it was an important point — that Mr. Obama on Sept. 12, contrary to his own account on Oct. 16, had not called the Benghazi attack an act of terror.
I will quote the exchange in full, because this was our prize-winner’s big moment:
“It — it — it — he did in fact, sir,” said Candy. With the verve of a bodyguard, she threw herself – verbally, at least — in the path of any further accusations against Mr. Obama: “So let me — let me call it an act of terror.”
Mr. Obama did not pass up this opportunity. “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?”, he asked.
She obliged, saying to Mr. Romney (this was the utterance that clinched her this evening’s prize): “He — he did call it an act of terror.”
With that, Ms. Crowley transformed the two-man presidential debate into a three-ring circus. Mr. Romney was now debating not only the incumbent, but the moderator, who was repeating, at Mr. Obama’s request, Mr. Obama’s untruth.
Further muddying the scene, Ms. Crowley then threw in the somewhat incoherent statement: “It did as well take — 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,” Apparently this was supposed to be a sop to Mr. Romney, because she then conceded that whatever she meant by this gibberish, “You are right about that.”
At that point in the debate, being right no longer mattered. Mr. Romney tried to recover the point, but Ms. Crowley was by then in a big hurry to move on. The exchange devolved into cross-talk in which the final words went to Mr. Obama, who was also in a hurry to move right along, because, as he said, referring to the audience, “I just want to make sure that all of these wonderful folks are going to have a chance to get some of their questions answered.”
Shortly after the debate, Ms. Crowley — a freshly minted celebrity of that campaign season — made her own rounds on the TV talk shows. She told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that Mr. Romney was “right in the main,” but “picked the wrong word.” She told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien that “I was trying to sort of — you know, bring some clarity to the conversation.”
She appeared on The View, where she explained that she’d been “trying to move the conversation along” and “they got stuck on this word.” She compared the Romney-Obama disagreement to President Clinton’s disquisition on what “the definition of ‘is’ is,” and excused her own intervention as: “It did not come to me as, I’m going to fact check this. It came to me as, could we get past this? The point is, this is a semantic thing.”
Actually, it was not just a semantic thing, nor was it a matter of what the meaning of “is” is. The words at issue were “an act of terror.” The act of terror in question was one in which four Americans died, two of them choking on the smoke of a diesel-fueled conflagration and two hit by mortars. And the context of this “semantic thing” — in which it was the prerogative of the candidates, not the moderator, to pick the words — was a nationally televised debate in the race for the job of president of the United States.
Whatever Ms. Crowley meant to achieve, she did manage to get the election season debate past those awkward Benghazi issues. That was the end of Benghazi as a major element in the race, though it appears there are a lot of questions yet to be answered.
I must mention that in considering Ms. Crowley for a Duranty award, the selection committee did discuss whether an award could be given for achievements that took place not in 2013, but in 2012. However, Ms. Crowley took up the Benghazi “semantic thing” again last year, in May, 2013, on CNN’s State of the Union show, which she anchors.
She did not apologize for misleading the nation and derailing a presidential campaign debate by running interference for Mr. Obama. Actually, she appeared to have dropped her own starring role in that debate right down the Memory Hole. Speaking to one of President Obama’s senior advisors, Dan Pfeiffer, about the Susan Rice “video” talking points and Mr. Obama’s strange equivocations, semantic haze and video allusions in the weeks just after Benghazi, Ms. Crowley asked: “So why wouldn’t the president just say, yeah, it was a terrorist attack?”
A good question, seven months late.
Was it, perhaps, because his campaign narrative at that stage — like Ms. Crowley’s interjection into the debate — trumped any interest in the truth?
What we do know: There was Candy Crowley, in 2013, asking why the president at a critical moment did not say the words which at another critical moment she had insisted he did say.
In this philosophy of the universe, it’s always a question of what the meaning of “is” is. Or, as Ms. Crowley explained during her appearance on The View: “People are going to look at this thing through the prism that they look at this through, and I get that.”
So do we. Having judged that Candy Crowley — with her efforts to bring clarity to the 2012 presidential campaign, and then to disavow any responsibility for the results — has satisfied in every particular the requirements of the selection committee, we are pleased to congratulate her as first runner-up for the 2014 Walter Duranty Award for Journalistic Mendacity.