The second presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney featured a moment somewhat like that. The president, seemingly knowing exactly what attack his Republican opponent was going to make on the issue of Libya and Benghazi, made very sure to mention his address in the White House Rose Garden on the day after the assault in Benghazi in which he referred to the tragedy as an "act of terror." Romney got a gleam in his eye and started to respond very excitedly: In the alternate universe of right-wing media, see, Obama had not referred to the incident as a terrorist attack until two weeks after the event. Sensing an opportunity to catch Obama in a lie and score a devastating strike that would likely have media outlets declaring him the winner, Romney eagerly reconfirmed with the president that he had, in fact, claimed to have called the incident an act of terror the very next day.
Obama's response, it could be argued, will become a classic in the annals of presidential debates. Instead of answering Romney's requests for confirmation, he simply said, "please proceed, governor." It was said with confidence, bravado, and a hint of righteous indignation that should have let the Republican know that he was walking into a trap. But backed by full confidence in the right wing's alternate version of reality, Romney went after it, and contradicted the president, claiming that it actually took the aforementioned two weeks.
"Check the transcript," retorted Obama.
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Imagine the stakes at this point. It's the most dramatic moment of a debate being watched by tens of millions of American voters between two men who are seeking to become the so-called leader of the free world. What happens in the next few seconds could alter the media narrative for the next several days in a close election where people in key swing states already have the opportunity to cast a ballot. The tension is so thick that it could be cut with a knife, and at this moment, each candidate has presented the town hall audience and the millions of viewers at home with two completely opposite versions of a recent event whose facts are easily verified. If you're a moderator, what do you do?
Debate moderate Candy Crowley of CNN made a gutsy call, and did a service to the American people in the process. Rather than let the two mutually incompatible recitations of facts stand on their own unjudged, Crowley chose to actually state which version was objectively true (the president's version), and which one was not. In so doing, she handed Obama a classic YouTube moment and a solid debate victory, and sent the right wing into an apoplectic fit.
The entire conservative media cadre erupted into accusations that Crowley had injected herself unnecessarily into the debate and had overstepped her role as moderator, and had taken sides with Obama. There can be no argument that Crowley did take Obama's side in the exchange; she even acquiesced to the president's request to "say it a little louder" to make sure everyone at home had the chance to hear her confirm his recounting of events. But Crowley didn't take Obama's side in the debate—she merely took the side of the facts. Fox News host Steve Doocy acknowledged as much by saying in his critique of Crowley that the proper time for fact-checking is after the event, rather than during it.
This is a very telling statement from the main propaganda arm of the right wing, because it constitutes an explicit admission that they live in an alternate universe whose reality should never be verified by independent sources when anyone is actually watching. Instead, says the right-wing media machine, conservative candidates should be free to say whatever falsehoods they wish to and pass off any challenges to them as merely the usual spinning of political argumentation, with no acknowledgment of the actual facts until the post-debate spinning that only those who have already made up their minds will likely ever pay attention to. It's no secret that the right would push this concept: Its intellectual leaders know that their conspiracy-laced narratives against Obama are devoid of truth, and seek the cover of ignorance from a base whose biases make it predisposed to believe what the movement sells it.
This past Tuesday evening, Candy Crowley offered America and America's news outlets a choice between two different visions of the media's role in the political system: to bend over backwards to treat candidates equally, even when one is hoeing a straight and narrow factual path while the other prevaricates relentlessly; or to place facts above the ideal of false objectivity and deal with the resulting fallout. For the sake of democracy, let us hope more debate moderators choose the latter option, starting with the third and final debate this Monday night. Otherwise, our favorite quadriennial political spectacle will become nothing other than fact-free speech zones.