The second 2012 presidential debate hosted by Candy Crowley got the full court press from the New York Times, with live fact-checking online and a 40-minute TimesCast wrap-up , that found Times reporters wrongly defending Obama and bashing Mitt Romney on a fiery exchange on Libya. Times journalists were highly supportive of Barack Obama's performance and critical of the "peevish" Mitt Romney, who "was arguably showing disrespect for the president," as Jackie Calmes insisted.
Times journalists also falsely insisted that President Obama had called the Benghazi attacks "an act of terror" in a Rose Garden speech the day after, and that Mitt Romney had made a "serious gaffe" when he suggested Obama had not.
Yet in fact, as two other Times journalists softly pointed out later in the videocast, Obama was only speaking generally when he said in his Rose Garden speech that "no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this nation." Of the Benghazi assault, Times Managing Editor Richard Berke admitted that Obama "didn't say 'it was a terrorist attack.' It was more of a vague quote."
Editor Susan Chira confirmed that Obama did "technically label it a terrorist act, but he was not terribly strong, he didn't dwell on it, and the administration did continue to have a kind of shifting account of what happened for a considerable period of time."
White House correspondent Jackie Calmes and Romney reporter Michael Barbaro sat with host Megan Liberman, and this exchange came about a minute into the TimesCast.
Liberman: "To what extent do you think that the president accomplished what he set out to do tonight?"
Calmes: "I think he did exactly what he wanted to do. In fact I think he did better than I expected him to. He clearly gained confidence in the first minutes and I think took some energy from the fact that Mitt Romney seemed to take too much to heart the good debating points he got for aggression in the first debate, and I think really sort of stepped over the line to the point that he was arguably showing disrespect for the president. And I think that the president saw that and by early in the debate seemed to, you know, just sort of relax, you could almost see him relax."
Liberman: "You saw it in his face. "
Liberman: "Michael you said [Romney] seemed kind of peevish."
Barbaro: "The word that came to my mind was peevish. There was this kind of clenched, both physically and otherwise, quality to his performance. He interrupted a great deal. It strikes me as strange actually because Governor Romney is one of the greatest embracers of rules of all kinds."
Liberman: "He talked about the rules quite a lot tonight."
Barbaro: "And decorum. Interrupting to reinforce the rules, 'It's my turn, it's my minute.'"
Liberman: "'I get the last word.'"
Barbaro: "There was some of this on both sides but the overall kind of quality of the debate was that Governor Romney seemed bothered, annoyed, and I'm convinced that some viewers will probably take away from that, that this was a lesser performance than last time."
Liberman: "And does that undercut what was maybe one of his biggest goals for tonight, which was to sort of enforce his empathy, his likability factor?"
Barbaro: "You know we talked earlier this evening about how this was supposed to be the liberated Mitt Romney who didn't need to be doing the repair work, who could be selling his product, you know, his plan. I think that there's going to be a little more repair work to be done, I think. This wasn't the most likable Romney, it was a little more, I mean, Mitt Romney's never going to be rambunctious, he's far too decorous and well-behaved. But this was the closest he's come, certainly in one of these formal environments, to being unplugged and almost too loose a version of Mitt Romney."
After other segments, Liberman returned to Calmes and Barbaro twenty minutes in:
Liberman: "Interestingly, I think we all thought this would be maybe the toughest moment for the president. He seemed actually quite well prepared for this answer, didn't he?"
Calmes: "He sure did. And to my amazement, he actually came out looking better that Mitt Romney, who you know, they both had to be prepared for that question. Even though the president's been on the defensive, his administration has, for–"
Liberman: "They've had terrible answer for like a month."
Calmes: "Right. Right. And just on the eve of this debate, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took responsibility for it and the president stepped in and said no, the buck, essentially the buck stops with me. He took the issue and he took responsibility, and he really scored a few points against Mitt Romney for using the event to make his statement, as the president put it, 'even as the events were playing out,' playing politics with it. And then Mitt Romney–"
Liberman: "An unforced error."
Calmes: "Yeah. Had an unforced error by claiming the president did not call it an 'act of terror' on the first day which he of course did."
After some praise for Obama's deftness on foreign policy, Barbaro circled back to the Libya exchange and made the erroneous charges against Romney:
Barbaro: "Let be go back to something Jackie said, you know, when Mitt Romney announced on national television in a debate that President Obama didn't say the word terror in the Rose Garden and he got it wrong. That's a very big deal. When you're running for president and you're prepared for a debate, and you claim something to not be the case and it is, that's a very memorable moment."
Calmes: "Especially when you're a candidate who's already criticized for not [indecipherable]"
Barbaro: "[indecipherable] somewhat shaky ground given the quick, politicized statement he made on Libya. This was a serious gaffe."
Calmes: "And the moderator bucked up the president in saying that Mitt Romney was wrong. So-"
Liberman: "Fulfilling the moderator's role of semi-fact-checking the candidates!"
It was up to Managing Editor Richard Berke and Assistant Managing Editor Susan Chira 33 minutes in to provide some nuance on Libya.
Berke: "Can you talk a little about the back and forth?"
Chira: "Yes. I mean this was the opportunity for Governor Romney to press his fairly successful attack on the Obama administration about the conflicting stories that the administration spokesmen have told about what happened in Libya. But there was kind of an unexpected twist to that, which is that President Obama cited the fact that on the day after the attack he went to the Rose Garden and he did refer to the attack as an "act of terror." And Governor Romney didn't seem to remember or know that that had happened, so that he was sort of pressing his case and President Obama was saying, no no no, and then Candy Crowley jumped in and said 'well technically that's right,' which has brought her criticism."
Berke: "And she gave the president credibility by sort of siding with him on that in the one time in the debate. But as you and I looked back at that transcript -- and it wasn't -- he didn't say 'it was a terrorist attack.' It was more of a vague quote."
Chira: "Yeah, he said no acts of terror will stand, something along those lines. And I think that he did, you know, technically label it a terrorist act, but he was not terribly strong, he didn't dwell on it, and the administration did continue to have a kind of shifting account of what happened for a considerable period of time, which is the vulnerability the Republicans have been seizing on."