By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Fact-checking the fact-checkers on an “act of terror”

In claiming that President Obama was not fully truthful last night regarding when he said he labeled the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, an “act of terror,” the fact-checkers are adopting as their own the manner in which Gov. Mitt Romney wants to frame it. The attack claimed several American lives, including that of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

When the exchange took place, Romney appeared to be wildly, extravagantly wrong in claiming it took Obama two weeks to utter those words. He never fully regained his composure after moderator Candy Crowley read a transcript in which Obama, in a Rose Garden address the day after the attack, spoke of it in the context of “acts of terror.”

And it turns out that Obama said it again two days later: “I want people around the world to hear me: To all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished.”

Hard to be much clearer than that. Yet look at how some of the leading fact-checkers handled it.

PolitiFact, on Obama’s insistence that he labeled it an “act of terror” right from the beginning: “Obama described it in those terms the day after the attack. But in the days that followed, neither he nor all the members of his administration spoke consistently on the subject. There were many suggestions that the attack was part of demonstrations over an American-made video that disparaged Islam. We rate the statement Half True.”, on Romney’s claim that it took Obama withheld the terrorism label for two weeks: “Romney isn’t entirely wrong. Romney claimed Obama refused for two weeks after the Benghazi attack to call it a terrorist attack and, instead, blamed it on a spontaneous demonstration in response to an anti-Muslim video that earlier that day triggered a violent protest in Egypt.”

The Washington Post: “Romney’s broader point is accurate — that it took the administration days to concede that the assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was an ‘act of terrorism’ that appears unrelated to initial reports of anger at a video that defamed the prophet Muhammad. (The reporting is contradictory on whether there was indeed a demonstration outside the mission.) By our count, it took eight days for an administration official to concede that the deaths in Libya were the result of a ‘terrorist attack.'”

It’s pretty easy to see what’s going on here. Romney has attempted to frame the issue as though any suggestions from the White House that the attack may have had something to do with the inflammatory video “Innocence of the Muslims” are incompatible with Obama’s statements that the attack was an “act of terror.”

But why should that be so? Why are they mutually exclusive? Obama said from the start that the attack was an “act of terror,” he repeated it and he hasn’t wavered on it. The administration has wavered on what role the video might have played. It’s worth noting that the New York Times, which had people on the ground in Benghazi, stands by its reporting that the anger stirred up by the video actually did play into the attack. The terrorist attack, if you will.

The administration’s response to the Benghazi attack has not been a shining moment, and Romney had plenty to work with. So it was obviously a huge mistake on Romney’s part for him instead to dwell on whether and when Obama labeled it an “act of terror” rather than focusing on the reasons for the security breakdown and shifting explanations for what went wrong.

But thanks to the fact-checkers’ genetic disposition to throw a bone to each side regardless of the truth, Romney’s mistake looks less damaging today than it did last night.

Photo (cc) by Cain and Todd Benson and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. Obama labelled it an act of terror long before Romney.

  2. Mark Steitz

    Obama didn’t say that the Bengazhi attack was an act of terror. Just because he said ‘act of terror’ in the rose garden speech doesn’t mean he said what happened there was an act of terror.

  3. Martin Callaghan

    While fact checking is important as debate follow-up, debates also give the voters an opportuniy to see how the candidates react. How they respond, how they press, and their overall demeanor. As you correctly point out, Romney never completely recovered from this. As a result Obama was able to do much better with Ben Gahzi than I expected. While Romney pressed on some issues, the President had decent repsonses to most and Romney was unable to score the big blow.

  4. Laurence Glavin

    Rachel Maddow has gone over this ground a few times on her eponymous MSNBC show. She has called out Politifact to the point that she believes the syllable ‘fact’ be removed from its name. I’m guessing that she may take on the “fact” checkers” very soon!

  5. Why do they have to equivocate on everything?

    Right, he just happened to be in the Rose Garden talking about the attack when the words “acts of terror” slipped out of his mouth, completely out of context.

    I almost wish Obama had an equivalent to Whitewater so people could at least look like they’re focusing on a real issue; the constant whining and foolish nitpicking is embarrassing.

  6. By the time the fact checkers get done fact checking the fact checkers we’ll need the Republicans and Democrats to fact check each other. There’s a Marx Brothers movie in here someplace.

  7. L.K. Collins

    Obama and his administration went to great lengths to blame the violence and the deaths on a vile video. The charade went on for days.

    And now, Dan, in his infinite wisdom and studied bias, declares that the administration was buying the terrorist angle all along.

    Ok, Dan, we’ll give you your point. Now explain why all the hoo-ha about and anti-Muslim video for day’s on end coming from the official spokespeople of the Obama administration.

    (Be fun to see how Dan spins this one.)

    • Mike Benedict

      I’m wondering why so many folks who have never stepped foot in a Muslim country are so sure they knew exactly what was going on the moment it happened, while so many who were on the ground in those countries were confused.

      Then again, some people still think 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy, and even more laughable, that George Bush knew how to run a country, so …

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