After a lackluster performance in the first debate, President Barack Obama perked up for Wednesday’s town hall, taking an aggressive stance against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, criticizing him repeatedly for inaccurate statements about the president’s positions and policies.
And by Thursday morning, the statements of both candidates had been vetted by a host of fact-checkers, led by organizations such as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.
The rise of these organizations and the public’s growing appetite for their services is a tremendously good thing. The voting public deserves to hear the truth about the issues, and candidates should be held accountable for not only the facts and figures they rattle off, but also for their characterization of policies and positions on both sides of the campaign.
But does this fact-checking happen quickly enough?
In one of Wednesday’s more pointed and interesting exchanges, Candy Crowley jumped in to mediate between the candidates, who were arguing over the president’s characterization of the deadly attack against U.S. diplomats in Libya.
Crowley pointed out that Obama did, in fact, call it an act of terror immediately afterward, which Romney was disputing. But Crowley added that the administration’s response to the incident changed over time — another point Romney was pushing. In effect, she said, “You’re both right, and let’s move on.”
This sort of short exchange, where the moderator wades into the he-said/he-said to straighten out the facts, is all too rare.
It is hard to understand how, in the age of the 24/7 news cycle, when every cable news station has a live Twitter feed, it’s not possible to bring more of this real-time fact-checking to the presidential debates. Millions of people sitting at home, Googling the candidates’ statements, may have wondered why it was left to them to do that work.
The infrastructure to feed the public’s appetite for accuracy is already in place, but the next step needs to be taken. Candidates can say whatever they want on the campaign trail without fear of being called out on it, except for by the rare heckler. The debates need to be different.
Crowley is to be applauded for diving in to this back-and-forth, which otherwise could have eaten up even more precious time than it did. But there were other “No you didn’t”/”Yes I did” moments on Wednesday that could easily have been shut down with a remark from the moderator.
The moderator is not a referee. But maybe she should be. That way, the candidates could waste less time quibbling over “facts” and more time talking about the issues.