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Debate Watch: The Fact-Check Heard Round the World

We don't yet have pop-up fact-checks at Presidential debates. But for one crucial moment, we did have Candy Crowley.

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

President Barack Obama and Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Oct. 16, 2012 at the start of the second of three presidential debates at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.

Back before the Presidential debates, I suggested, naively, that as long as networks were devoting resources to fact-checking candidates, it would be more useful to viewers to have fact-checks appear in the lower third of the screen during the debates themselves. You don’t really counter a lie (or mistake) told to 70 million people by correcting it for a million people or so the next day. Think of it as Pop-Up Fact Checking, I said.

We didn’t have that at the Hofstra town hall debate last night. But we did have, for one question at least, Candy Crowley.

The CNN moderator stepped in during an exchange over the fatal attack on the Benghazi consulate in Libya in September. President Obama said in the debate that he had described the killings as an act of terror. In his response, Mitt Romney seized on the gaffe–or what he supposed was one. From the transcript:

ROMNEY: [T]he president just said something which — which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.

OBAMA: That’s what I said.

ROMNEY: You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror.

It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you’re saying?

OBAMA: Please proceed governor.

ROMNEY: I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.

OBAMA: Get the transcript.

CROWLEY: It — it — it — he did in fact, sir. So let me — let me call it an act of terror…

OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?

CROWLEY: He — he did call it an act of terror. It did as well take — it did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.

Conservatives have already been pushing back on the fact-check, along different lines. Yes, Obama said “act of terror,” but he didn’t characterize it unambiguously and forcefully enough. Yes, he said “act of terror,” but he didn’t mean that to apply to Benghazi. (This despite the fact that the line immediately followed his mention of Benghazi.) Or: whether he used the words “act of terror” is a semantic point, but there are larger, more important points about how the Administration handled security and the aftermath.

That last may well be very true. There are many legitimate, larger arguments and criticisms Romney could have made in that instant. (As Crowley herself references.) But he didn’t. He made a specific, semantic one. He did it, to all appearances, deliberately, whether it was prepped or he was freelancing in the moment: locking eyes with the President, turning to him forcefully, pressing him like a prosecutor to stand by his use of one very particular phrasing.

Romney had the look of a candidate trying to create a “moment”: if it worked, he would have dramatically caught the President in an objective lie about his words on national TV. Game, set, match. But he got it wrong, ignoring the advice of thousands of hours of TV legal dramas: Never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to.

And, importantly, Crowley called it out—in the moment. There’s simply a tremendous difference between correcting a statement live—in front of one of the biggest TV audiences of the year—and doing it the next day in a sidebar somewhere. Had Crowley not confirmed what was on the transcript, imagine how differently the exchange would have played, no matter what the fact-checkers said today. (Disclosure, by the way: CNN, as you can read at the top of this page, is a corporate sibling of TIME. But go ahead and Google my past reviews—I’ve been plenty unkind to them, for plenty of reasons, in the past.)

Crowley’s action was also an example of the limits of fact-checking for debate moderators. There are any number of things she didn’t fact-check, from simple facts to insinuations to larger truths. “Acts of terror” was an example of the one thing a moderator could reasonably catch in real time: a simple contested claim about a direct quote for which there’s a record, as opposed to a budget claim with competing tax analyses to weigh. And even at that, it’s a ballsy move: if the fact-checker is wrong on that specific fact in the moment, it would be a disaster for her and deeply unfair to the “corrected” candidate.

But that’s why you have experienced journalists moderate debates. It’s why you have journalists cover elections, period—not to stand back and say, “Well, one guy says the transcript says this, the other one says it says that, and who are we to judge the truth?”

Partisans are going to debate what Crowley did, but a good chunk of the electorate wants that. In the room at Hofstra, people clapped. You can say that they were partisans happy that their side scored one. But for having the chance to check a direct, verifiable fact and not ducking it, Crowley deserved a round of applause.

Update: Here, my standard disclosure: I voted for Obama in ’08 and plan to do so again in ’12. To paraphrase Walter Mondale: most people who write about politics have voting preferences; the difference is, they won’t tell you theirs and I just did. To read my fuller thoughts on political writing and disclosure, click here