Journalist Candy Crowley prepares to moderate the second presidential debate with President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012. / EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
Moderator Candy Crowley is facing criticism over her performance in the second presidential debate, with conservatives alleging that she sided with President Obama and one group even calling on her to be fired.
"Crowley's behavior goes beyond despicable as it was a blatant attempt to influence the presidential election," Americans for Limited Government said in a statement Wednesday. "If CNN wants to maintain any shred of credibility as a 'news' organization, they should fire Crowley immediately for her gross violation of whatever remains of journalistic standards."
Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck tweeted during the debate that "Candy loves to police Romney! As soon as he begins to win she shuts him down." Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote, "There goes Candy holding Romney's feet to the fire while, letting Obama unchain his muse." Another conservative, John Nolte, wrote, "Crowley is the one losing this debate. She's been absolutely disgraceful and biased from choice of questions to time." Rush Limbaugh complained Wednesday that Crowley had committed "an act of journalistic terror."
It wasn't just the commentators. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said Crowley overstepped her bounds in trying to fact check the candidates. "When you have two candidates disagreeing, it's not the role of the moderator to say, 'Mr. President, you're right' or 'Gov. Romney, you're right,'" he told Crowley on CNN Wednesday.
The attacks on Crowley are different than the criticism of moderator Jim Lehrer after the first presidential debate. Lehrer was deemed too deferential, while Crowley is being criticized for inserting herself into the conversation with questionable facts. But the overarching dynamic is the same: In this polarized political age, a debate moderator has little chance to escape a harsh critique. Even Martha Raddatz, who kept tight control on last week's vice presidential debate and challenged both candidates, was deemed by conservatives to have sided with Joe Biden.
To be sure, debate moderators should not be insulated from criticism. The questions during Tuesday night's town hall debate, which were chosen by Crowley, more often than not played into the president's hands - perhaps reflecting the fact that the town hall was held in a blue state. And Crowley's decision to side with the president over whether he had deemed the Libya attack an act of terror, when the reality was not so clear cut, was a misstep.
But the moderator's impact on the debate is ultimately relatively small: It is the candidates, after all, who do most of the talking. The moderator, meanwhile, has to try to keep the conversation moving while giving the candidates equal time, correcting false claims and steering answers back toward the question. For partisans looking to explain away a poor performance by their candidate, she or he makes an easy target precisely because it's almost impossible to pull all that off perfectly. It should come as no surprise that many Democrats suggested that Mr. Obama lost the first debate in part because Lehrer let Romney roll over him, while many Republicans suggested Romney lost the second one because Crowley handed it to the president. That's a lot easier than just admitting your guy screwed up.
Moderator-bashing has taken on the nasty tone that partisans increasingly bring to just about every interaction they have with the news media. In the Republican primary debates, Newt Gingrich used attacks on debate moderators to score political points.
"It's such a hyper-politicized environment that people are looking to jump on any slight perception of favoritism one way or the other," said Alan Schroeder, a professor at Northeastern University and an expert on presidential debates. "This is unusually intense criticism for the moderators, and people are misplacing their focus here."
"This is not about the moderators," he said. "The moderators do the best they can under extremely difficult circumstances."
Crowley's decision to insert herself into the town hall format, which she made clear before the debate, prompted the campaigns to complain she was overstepping her bounds. While moderators have become more proactive in recent campaign cycles, in the past they tended to be more willing to simply play traffic cop, said Schroeder.
And Crowley's willingness to fact check on the fly reflects an increasing move in the news media to challenge erroneous claims. It's a development that has been welcomed by many but also comes with risks, both because the journalist may not have their facts right and because challenging a candidate can contribute to perceptions that the journalist is biased.
Crowley isn't offering apologies. Though she initially seemed to backtrack on her Libya fact check, suggesting that Romney was "right in the main, I just think he picked the wrong word," she later maintained that she had not in fact done so. She said on "The View" Wednesday morning that her fact check was simply an attempt to move the conversation forward, and suggested that criticism of her performance was inevitable.
"People are going to look at this through the prism they look at this through," Crowley said. "I get that."