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How Should the Media Deal With Presidential Candidates' Fantasies?

Is it a debate moderator's job to call out a presidential candidate for lying?
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Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) speaks to a crowd during a campaign rally at Ottawa Farms on December 19, 2015, in Bloomingdale, Georgia.  (Photo: Nicholas Pilch/Getty Images)

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) speaks to a crowd during a campaign rally at Ottawa Farms on December 19, 2015, in Bloomingdale, Georgia. (Photo: Nicholas Pilch/Getty Images)

If you want to get a quick sense of last Tuesday's Republican presidential debate, you really need look no further than Chris Christie's opening statement:

America has been betrayed. We've been betrayed by the leadership that Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton have provided to this country over the last number of years. Think about just what's happened today. The second largest school district in America in Los Angeles closed based on a threat. Think about the effect that that's going to have on those children when they go back to school tomorrow wondering filled with anxiety to whether they're really going to be safe.

Think about the mothers who will take those children tomorrow morning to the bus stop wondering whether their children will arrive back on that bus safe and sound. Think about the fathers of Los Angeles, who tomorrow will head off to work and wonder about the safety of their wives and their children.

OK, setting aside the mothers who work and the fathers who take children to school, let's review the substance of Christie's argument:

  • Every school in the L.A. Unified School District was shut down last Tuesday due to a bomb threat.
  • This threat turned out to be a hoax.
  • It's Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's fault.

This was really the tone throughout the evening. Candidate after candidate sought to raise the audience's fear and ire about national security situations that either did not exist or were massively overhyped. They then said how tough they would be in dealing with the situation (from indiscriminate bombing of civilians to killing the families of terrorists to shooting down Russian planes) and blamed Obama for his role in creating the overhyped or non-existent problem. Christie actually called the president a "feckless weakling," presumably for his inability to prevent someone from emailing a fake bomb threat.

The substance of the debate received quite a bit of pushback from commentators afterwards, and not just from liberals. Many objected not only to some of the candidates' apparent ignorance about basic foreign policy matters (Ted Cruz not understanding carpet bombing, Donald Trump's unfamiliarity with the nuclear triad, etc.), but the fantasy worlds they've essentially invented.

The real question, then, is what are reporters and debate moderators supposed to do about this sort of thing? I don't have many strong critiques of the way the CNN team handled the debate—the questions were pretty good, designed to shine a light on differences among the candidates, and the moderation was rather well done. But in theory, the debate moderators could be holding candidates accountable for things they say at the time they say it.

Wolf Blitzer did a bit of this in his exchange with Cruz, pressing the senator for some specificity about his plans to carpet bomb ISIS targets in Syria. Blitzer wanted to know whether civilians in cities would be fair game, since ISIS members hide themselves among urban civilian populations for the precise reason that it makes them a difficult target. Cruz responded:

You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops.… But the object isn't to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists.

Blitzer let that one go. Perhaps he was right to do it, lest the exchange seem like a personal vendetta. But he also might have said something like: "That's the point of the friggin' question, Senator. If you carpet bomb where ISIS is, you're going to kill lots of civilians. So viewers want to know whether you think that's a reasonable thing to do."

When Carly Fiorina listed five generals who were "retired early because they told President Obama things that he didn't want to hear," she was saying something blatantly untrue. David Petraeus left the military when Obama nominated him to head the Central Intelligence Agency; he later resigned amid a personal scandal. John Keane resigned in 2003, six years before Obama became president. Surely at least one of the moderators knew this, but they didn't challenge Fiorina's claims during the debate. One of them could have said: "Ms. Fiorina, what you just said was untrue. Would you care to revise that statement?" But would that have been the best approach?

For an example, we might think back to when CNN's Candy Crowley inserted herself into a 2012 debate between Obama and Mitt Romney over whether Obama had called the Benghazi attacks an "act of terror" the next day. This was a factual dispute; Obama was claiming one version of events and Romney was claiming another. Crowley weighed in and said that Obama's version was the correct one. And she took some heat for this, with many Republican sources claiming this was evidence of her (or her network's) bias.

So one can certainly sympathize with moderators being tepid about challenging candidates' incorrect factual assertions. Being labeled as partisan is very damaging for most reporters and networks, and they will usually bend over backwards to avoid even a whiff of that.

Nonetheless, they're the ones in the room with the candidates and the ability to challenge them in real time. If candidates are going to discuss the world as it actually exists, it will only be because journalists force them to.


What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.