When it comes to correcting the record of candidate misstatements and outright lies during presidential debates, journalists are treating the public to a debate among their peers about their proper role in calling out untruths.
Call it the Candy Crowley Conundrum. You may recall Crowley, CNN’s chief political correspondent, corrected Mitt Romney in 2012 after he said during a debate that President Obama had not initially declared the attack on the consulate in Benghazi “an act of terror.” Obama, backed up by Crowley, said he had. Crowley came under intense criticism from Republicans for inserting herself into the dialogue (http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/18/politics/fact-check-crowley-critics-debate/index.html).
Four years later, Chris Wallace of Fox News, chosen to moderate the third and last presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, has said he doesn’t believe it’s the job of a moderator to fact-check the candidates in real time. Like most liberal media folk, I don’t agree, but I can understand Wallace’s position of opting to let the candidates duke it out. After all, it makes for entertaining, unexpected, live television, good ratings, and Fox News itself has a history of shading reality, so why not see if Clinton has the cohones to stand up to Trump for a job that will require her to match muscles with the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
In truth, it is not Candy Crowley TV journalists should be daring to channel. They should be aspiring to follow the example of Edward R. Murrow. On March 9, 1954, Murrow devoted his entire CBS show, See It Now, to exposing the lies, deceptions, innuendos and evil spewed by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis).
“Using McCarthy’s own statements, Murrow painted a picture of a man whose recklessness with the truth and ugly attacks on his critics had contributed to a climate of deep fear and repression in American life,” wrote Jack Mirkinson, senior media editor, The Huffington Post, back in 2014 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/10/edward-murrow-joseph-mccarthy-60-years-later_n_4936308.html).
Fourteen years later, another CBS legend, Walter Cronkite, ended a 1968 special report on the Vietnam War with editorial comments that clearly portrayed the futility of American involvement in the conflict. Afterwards, President Lyndon Baines Johnson was reported to have said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite I’ve lost Middle America.”
Murrow and Cronkite understood the power of their position, the power of their words on the public. Today’s television audience is more fragmented than during their heyday, but the devotion to journalistic principles and enterprise should not be diminished (though executives in the suites of the major networks might fear financial repercussions if correspondents or anchors today acted so boldly as to challenge the veracity of candidates. After all, look what happened to Dan Rather in 2004 when he questioned President George W. Bush about his military service in the Air National Guard—he lost his job at CBS.)
Matt Lauer’s performance as moderator of Wednesday’s forum on national security on NBC revealed how a democracy is poorly served by a journalist who allows a candidate to blatantly falsify the record. It’s one thing for a candidate to mislead when delivering a staged stump speech. It’s wrong, but understandable, and the damage usually is confined to a few thousand or so within earshot. But letting a candidate lie in front of millions of viewers is quite a different story.
In a democracy, politicians and journalists are engaged in an adversarial relationship (the same is true of the relationship between journalists and business executives, the military, the healthcare profession, indeed all walks of life in a free society). It is not enough to just air or print a politician’s daily screed. Truth serves the American public.
Progressive print journalists have been spilling ink by the barrelful in their condemnation of Trump’s lies, by the man who promised he would always tell the truth and who planted the label of “lyin’ Ted Cruz” on one of his Republican opponents and who now calls his Democratic foe “lying Hillary” (http://nyti.ms/2bYlDzv).
But let’s face it: Unless a major television network, with reach vastly beyond that of the print media, sees its role as a defender of freedom and responsible journalism, unless a major network chooses to channel the likes of Murrow, Cronkite and Crowley, and even Rather, we as a nation have to accept the loss of truth in our political process.