Wait Wait, Candy Crowley and Implicit Rules

By Mike Dorf

Over the weekend, I was the first listener-contestant on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me.   Audio of my segment is available here.  As you'll notice if you listen, the three questions I was asked were very easy.  Indeed, I predicted them in advance, in order (as my students can attest).  Predicting the questions was not a great challenge.  As a regular listener to the show, I have a pretty good sense of the sorts of questions that get asked in any given week.  E.g., -- spoiler alert -- my first question concerned the biggest humorous line of the week: "binders full of women."

Of course, even though I successfully predicted my questions--and thus won Carl Kasell's voice on my voicemail, to be recorded soon!--before the show started I didn't know that I had predicted the questions correctly.  Accordingly, after learning on Tuesday of last week that I would be on the show, I spent a ridiculous amount of time studying the news of the week.  But still, I might have missed something and so I started thinking along the following lines: Suppose that while I'm on the phone playing the quiz, I'm also sitting at my computer and Googling any questions I don't know.  Would that violate the rules of the game?

Just to be clear, I did not set myself up to answer questions via Google.  I concluded that doing so would certainly violate the spirit of the rules, if not their letter, and while violating the spirit but not the letter of the rules of a game show is not clearly unethical (in the way that violating the spirit of the law against fraud or robbery would be, say), I decided against making the attempt anyway.  Nonetheless,  here I want to consider whether Googling the questions would have also violated an actual, albeit implicit, prohibition.  I'll relate that question to the dustup over Candy Crowley's having "fact-checked" Mitt Romney during the second Presidential debate.

So let's back up.  I became a contestant on the show by going to the website, clicking on the "email us" link, and providing some basic info.  A few days later I received a call from the show's producer, and after a little back and forth over timing, I was scheduled to be on the phone during the recording of the show.  There were no rules posted on the website nor did anybody tell me any rules.  Thus, so far as I was informed, I could have been sitting at my computer or had a friend listening in to the conversation and feeding me answers.

Would that have been implicitly in violation of the rules?  I think so but it depends on the background default.  Suppose I assign my students an essay to write.  I don't specify anything about collaboration with one another.  At Cornell, as at most universities, there are background rules about collaboration that apply by default, but let's put that aside.  Suppose the rules are silent.  What is the unwritten background rule?

Can students discuss their topics with one another?  If the essay is assigned as a "paper," I think the answer is yes, but not if it's assigned as a take-home "quiz" or "test."  Can a student get someone else to write her paper for her?  Pretty clearly not.  How about writing her own paper and then showing it to a friend for editorial suggestions?  Again, if the assignment is a paper, I think the answer is probably yes, while if it's a quiz or test, probably no.

Where do these background "rules"come from?  Pretty clearly they are social conventions.  Like most social conventions, there are purposes these particular rules serve, but there is an element of arbitrariness about them.  That is why sometimes problems arise for students who grew up in other educational systems which may have different conventions about collaboration and/or copying the work of others.  And that problem in turn explains why most universities do in fact tend to codify and distribute the rules about permissible and impermissible collaboration and copying: This informs students who are unfamiliar of the social convention so that they may conform to it and takes away a possible defense in the event that charges of violating the convention/rule is later made.

Now let's turn to last week's Presidential debate, during which moderator Candy Crowley "fact-checked" Governor Romney.  On the merits, I think this is a controversy over nothing.  Here's the relevant passage:
MR. ROMNEY: . . . I think it’s interesting the president just said something which is that on the day after the attack [in Libya], he went in the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror. You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration.PRESIDENT OBAMA: Please proceed.MR. ROMNEY: Is that what you’re saying?PRESIDENT OBAMA: Please proceed, Governor.MR. ROMNEY: I — I — 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.PRESIDENT OBAMA: Get the transcript.MS. CROWLEY: It — he did in fact, sir.So let me — let me call it an act of terrorism — (inaudible) —PRESIDENT OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy? (Laughter, applause.)MS. CROWLEY: 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 of there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.
The Romney campaign and its supporters have charged that Crowley departed from her role of impartial moderator here, although I didn't see it or read it that way at the time.  I understood Crowley to be saying that Romney was technically wrong if he was suggesting that Obama didn't use the word "terror" in his Rose Garden speech the day after the Benghazi attack but that Romney was correct in his big-picture accusation that the White House initially thought this was a spontaneous rather than an organized attack.  She was trying to help both candidates move on to their areas of real policy disagreement, rather than to quibble over what were Obama's exact words in a particular speech.

But let's suppose that Romney et al are right in their characterization.  Suppose for the sake of argument that the following exchange took place:
MR. ROMNEY: If I am elected president I will never do what President Obama did in 2010--and that is he took $50 million of taxpayer money and used it to buy crack cocaine, which he then distributed to pregnant teenagers throughout the United States. PRESIDENT OBAMA: That is a complete fiction.MS. CROWLEY: It is indeed a fiction Governor Romney.  You are referring to the plot of a novel about a fictional president, not actual events involving President Obama.
Supposing the accusation was indeed false (as of course it is), would there really be anything wrong with a debate moderator quickly pointing out that something one of the debate participants has just said is an out-and-out fabrication?  If so, it must be because of some unwritten social convention.

To be sure, the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by both campaigns and the Commission on Presidential Debates states that for last week's debate: "The moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on either the questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates . . . ."  So "fact-checking" was forbidden by the MOU.  But Crowley did not sign the MOU and announced in advance of the town-hall debate that she therefore did not consider herself bound by it.

Note too that the Romney campaign's core objection was not really to a violation of the written rules of the MOU anyway.  After all, Crowley (per her plan) quite clearly violated the MOU's prohibition on her asking follow-up questions; yet no one made a fuss about that.  Indeed, in the very passage quoted above (from the actual debate), Romney himself violated a rule forbidding the candidates from asking each other questions--and the Romney campaign did sign the MOU.

As I understand the Romney campaign's objection to the moderator's "fact-checking," it violated two unwritten social norms about debate moderators: 1) They should be neutral; and 2) they should be passive.

I think the neutrality norm for a debate moderator is well-established and generally accepted, but the passivity norm is not.  As Jon Stewart noted in his favorable commentary on Martha Raddatz's performance as moderator of the Vice Presidential debate, she was simply playing the role of good journalist in asking (each of) the candidates tough follow-up questions.

One can argue that a debate moderator should be passive, but that is at best a contested view of the best way that a debate moderator should perform.  And so, even though some right-leaning commentators have floated the notion that any active interventions by a moderator are contrary to role, absent the violation of specific rules to which a moderator agreed, that objection lacks bite.

The better objection would be that Crowley and/or Raddatz violated the neutrality norm.  But focusing just on Crowley, that hardly seems clear, even if we assume the one-sided intervention I've hypothesized.  Neutrality does not require treating the candidates identically.  It requires treating them fairly.  To take an extreme example, if one candidate consistently went substantially over time and the moderator consistently attempted to rein that candidate in, this would not be favoritism towards the other candidate; it would simply be neutral enforcement of the rules.

The complaint that Crowley fact-checked Romney but not Obama is thus a little bit like a basketball coach complaining that the other team shot twice as many free throws as his team; that doesn't reflect unfairness if the coach's team committed twice as many fouls.

Hence, in the end, it is hard to credit the Romney campaign's complaint about Crowley unless one thinks that she systematically intervened to correct misstatements by Romney but gave Obama a pass on comparable, and comparably frequent, misstatements.

I'll just conclude by saying that I see no evidence of such a pattern by Crowley or the other moderators. I do think, however, that the very question will inevitably be seen differently by partisans of the different candidates and thus, as a matter of prudence if not fairness, it's probably best for a moderator to avoid fact-checking even the most egregiously lying candidate.