Mitt Romney's not a prosecutor, but at Tuesday's debate he seemed to be setting up Barack Obama for a courtroom-like gotcha moment, trying to catch the president in an embarrassing contradiction regarding his public comments about the recent terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Instead, by bungling the facts and relying on right-wing misinformation, it was Romney who was crowned the loser of the tense debate showdown.
The semantics dispute centered on how long it took Obama to refer to the deadly attack as an act of terror.
From Obama [emphasis added]:
The day after the attack, Governor, I stood in the Rose Garden, and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror.
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.
Debate moderator Candy Crowley pointed out what other journalists did last night, that Obama mentioned “acts of terror” while addressing the Benghazi attack in the Rose Garden on September 12, the day after Americans were killed in Libya.
And for the record, the next day Obama said the same thing: "I want people around the world to hear me: To all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished.
So how could the Republican candidate be so misinformed about what Obama had said about the attack on Americans? And why did Romney cling to the false claim that the president had refused to call it an act of terror?
Short answer: Fox News.
As Erik Wemple at the Washington Post noted, in a deeply ironic twist it appears Romney was a victim of conservative misinformation on the topic of Benghazi. “Romney revealed that perhaps he'd spent some time inside a coverage bubble on the Benghazi story,” Wemple wrote. “In the words of one onlooker, he ” [c]onfused conservative spin for the truth."
During the debate, the Republican candidate relied on bogus, right-wing media talking points about Benghazi (scandal! cover-up!), instead of the facts. Sounding like a Fox host, Romney insisted the president had refused the call the attack an act of terror. Sounding like a Fox host, Romney tried to call out Obama's Benghazi lie. Except it was Romney who had the facts wrong and who badly botched the debate showdown, coming across as misinformed.
The episode confirmed the perils Romney faces while running as the Fox News Candidate. Married to the conservative media and all their bogus claims and conspiracies, Romney runs the risk of coming across as badly out of touch with the truth, the way he did last night.
As I previously noted, the problem for Romney is that he apparently believes the misinformation the GOP Noise Machine churns out on an hourly and daily basis. Or at least he pretends to believe it and then goes out and campaigns on the falsehoods. Politically, that's fine for when Romney's addressing partisan crowds of Republican voters. But at a nationally televised presidential debate, with a moderator willing to set facts straight, repeating far-right misinformation carries with it inherent risks, as Romney discovered.
To be fair, Romney's debate misstep wasn't just the fault of Fox News. It was the fault of the entire conservative media movement, which has been peddling the same lie for four weeks that Obama refused to call the Benghazi assault an act of terror.
• Why Won't Obama Call Libya Attacks Terrorism? [National Review Online]
• No, Obama Didn't Call Benghazi “Act of Terror” in Speech [Commentary]
Even after the debate, the far-right press claimed up was down with regards to Obama's “acts of terror” comments, insisting that the president wasn't referring to Benghazi specifically. At Newsbusters, Matthew Sheffield conceded Obama had used the word “terror” on September 12, but argued that's not what Obama really meant by “terror” because the context wasn't clear regarding his comments the day after the Benghazi assault.
It wasn't apparent Obama's September 12 “terror” comments were about Benghazi? Obama appeared in the Rose Garden that day for one reason only: to address the Benghazi attack. Everything he said in the Rose Garden on September 12 was in the context of the previous day's assault in Libya.
Still, if you understand what an obsessively anti-Obama story the Libya assault has become in the conservative press, it's no wonder Romney got the details wrong last night.
In preparation for next week's final debate, Romney might want to spend a little less time consuming conservative media and more time focusing on the facts.