The Censorship Election

How the Broadcast Networks Buried the Bad News That Threatened Barack Obama's Quest for a Second Term

CNN anchor Candy Crowley offered partisan assistance to President Obama when she sided with him during the second presidential debate on October 16, after Obama falsely claimed that “the day after the attack [in Libya], I stood in the Rose Garden and told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror....”

After challenger Mitt Romney (correctly) doubted Obama’s story, Crowley validated the fabrication, telling Romney: “He did, in fact, sir, call it an act of terror.”

But that wasn’t true. A careful review shows Obama began his Rose Garden statement by talking about the attack in Benghazi and eulogizing the four Americans who were killed. He implied the attacks were perpetrated by Muslims offended by a YouTube video, declaring: “Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None.”

One minute and 48 seconds later, the President pivoted to the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks: “Of course, yesterday was already a painful day for our nation, as we marked the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks....” It was during this section of his statement that he generically remarked how “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this nation.”

Crowley was incorrect; in his September 12 remarks, President Obama did not call the attack in Benghazi an “act of terror.” Indeed, nearly two weeks after the fact, in a September 25 appearance on ABC’s The View (taped the previous day), Obama was still refusing to call it terrorism when asked point-blank by co-host Joy Behar: “Is it? What do you say?”

“We’re still doing an investigation,” the President deflected.

Yet for the 65 million viewers watching Crowley’s debate on live television, Obama’s faulty version was scored as the truth.

The networks’ campaign reporters had a duty to correct the record, but the next night ABC’s World News offered nothing to suggest that Crowley and Obama were wrong. Instead, ABC correspondent Jake Tapper relayed how “Obama supporters were delighted” with the President’s performance, including how he “asserted himself on Libya.” A subsequent “fact check” by correspondent Jonathan Karl debunked two statements from the debate — one each from Obama and Romney — but did not challenge the “act of terror” statement.

On the NBC Nightly News, correspondent Chuck Todd at least mentioned that a factual dispute existed. He showed the clip of Obama speaking in the Rose Garden as if it proved the President’s point, but also added how Obama “earlier in those same remarks appeared to imply that protests sparked the attack.”

Only CBS Evening News correspondent Jan Crawford pointed out how Obama’s debate answer was in direct contradiction to the administration’s statements after the Benghazi attacks: “Last night, the President said he did call it an act of terror within 24 hours of the attacks. That is a new explanation.”

“The transcript of the President’s comments in the Rose Garden the day after the attack shows he does use those words,” Crawford continued, “but with that statement, Mr. Obama didn’t directly say the Libya attack qualified as one of those acts of terror....And for two weeks the President declined to call it terrorism....”

But while CBS was the most accurate in pointing how the President (enabled by Crowley) had skirted the truth, they failed to produce their own tape of 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft interviewing Obama just a couple of hours after his Rose Garden statement on September 12. While much of that interview had already been released, CBS on October 17 was still holding on to this exchange, which was especially relevant after the debate dust-up:

STEVE KROFT: Mr. President, this morning you went out of your way to avoid the use of the word ‘terrorism’ in connection with the Libya attack. Do you believe that this was a terrorism attack?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well it’s too early to tell exactly how this came about....

In other words, Kroft observed that Obama in his statement was declining to label this attack as terrorism, asked him about it on the spot, and seemed to get agreement from the President. Releasing that exchange the day after the debate would have documented the degree to which Obama was trying to re-write history. Yet CBS would not release that excerpt until the afternoon on Sunday, November 4 — less than two days before the election.

And the CBS Evening News did not report this on television until November 16 — ten days after the election. During a story about ex-CIA Director David Petraeus testifying that he never doubted that the Benghazi attack was an act of terrorism, correspondent David Martin added: “Yet President Obama refrained from calling it a terrorist attack when he spoke with Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes that afternoon.”

In the aftermath of President Obama’s false statement — validated by moderator Candy Crowley — during the second debate, this tape would have been huge news, and bad news for the Obama campaign. Instead, CBS sat on it for another two weeks, while ABC and NBC also refused to call the President out for his misstatement.

As then-President Gerald Ford learned after the media jumped on a misstatement he made during a 1976 debate, a vigorous reaction by journalists could have changed the dynamic of the presidential race. Instead, their non-reaction was just another favor on behalf of Team Obama.