Wednesday's banner New York Times headline on the second presidential debate was studiously neutral: "Obama and Romney Mount Biting Attacks in Debate Rematch." Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny's underlying report played it straight, as did Peter Baker in his front-page "news analysis," under the punchy headline "Punch, Punch, Punch."
But while the Obama cheerleading was muted in print, Times journalists let their slant show during live fact-check of the debate, and especially on the TimesCast. Baker wrote for Wednesday's edition:
Mr. Romney held his own and gave as good as he got, presenting Mr. Obama as a failed president who has piled on trillions of dollars of debt, left millions of Americans without work, bungled security for American personnel in Libya, done nothing to reform entitlement programs and deserted a middle class “crushed under the policies of a president who has not understood what it takes to get the economy working again.”
But it was Mr. Obama who was the central story line of the night, his performance coming across as a striking contrast to that of his first face-off with Mr. Romney. For days leading up to Tuesday night’s encounter, Mr. Obama huddled in a Virginia resort with advisers to practice a more aggressive approach without appearing somehow inauthentic or crossing over a line of presidential dignity. It was a line he would stride up to repeatedly over the course of more than 90 minutes, and some will argue that he slipped over it at times.
Baker's line contradicts his colleague Jackie Calmes' s assertion that it was Mitt Romney who "was arguably showing disrespect for the president,"
The paper's inevitable fact check, "A Closer Look at Some of the More Hotly Disputed Assertions," led off with Michael Cooper, who has previously leaned against Romney in these "fact-checking" pieces, awarded the infamous Libya exchange to Obama on points.
The Obama administration has been criticized for shifting assessments of what really happened in Benghazi, which continued to change over the course of two weeks. But the day after the attacks, Mr. Obama did say, “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”
While the Obama cheerleading was toned down in Wednesday morning's print edition, Times journalists had really let their slant show the night before during its live fact-check of the debate Tuesday night and especially the TimesCast.
Media reporter Brian Stelter rounded up favorable pro-Obama comments from analysts during the paper's live online coverage of the debate for "The Reaction: Better for Obama." Note that George Will is a "conservative columnist" but that MSNBC icons Rachel Maddow and Al Sharpton aren't burdened with political labels. Stelter:
...on ABC, the conservative columnist George Will said, “Barack Obama not only gained ground that he had lost, he cauterized some wounds that he inflicted on himself by seeming too distant and disengaged.”
On CNN, the longtime analyst David Gergen said “the night goes to Barack Obama.” On MSNBC, the Rev. Al Sharpton credited Mr. Obama with his “best performance of his career as a debater.”
“Tonight Mitt Romney was up against a different man,” said the MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, who added that “Democrats will be thrilled.”
To balance that somewhat, media reporter Jeremy Peters offered "Conservatives Criticize Crowley on Libya Comments."
And two Times reporters boasted of the exchange where Obama led Mitt Romney "into a trap" on Libya.
Here's Michael Shear with "Romney and Obama Spar Over Terrorism Label."
Mr. Obama had the look of a man who was watching his rival walk right into a trap.
The president had just said that he declared the killings in Libya to be an act of terror the day after the attack.
Mr. Romney started to correct the president, saying that he wanted to get that on the record. He turned to the president, asking for him to say it again.
“Continue, Governor,” Mr. Obama said, looking confident.
Mr. Romney again accused the president of waiting 14 days before he declared the incidents in Libya to be the work of terrorists.
“Check the transcript,” Mr. Obama said.
And then Ms. Crowley, the moderator, piped up.
“He did call it an act of terror,” Ms. Crowley said.
“Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” Mr. Obama said.
Reporter Helene Cooper also saw a clear win for Obama in the Libya exchange, writing at nytimes.com 40 minutes later:
Once Mr. Obama said “Please proceed,” it was probably not a good idea for Mr. Romney to proceed.
The issue was Libya, and Mr. Romney took Mr. Obama to task for saying that he had initially called the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi an “act of terror.”
“Please proceed,” Mr. Obama said, smirking.
Mr. Romney, apparently not aware that he was walking into a trap, plowed ahead.
“Is that what you’re saying?” he asked, pressing his point.
Mr. Obama smirked again. “Please proceed, Governor.”
Mr. Romney kept on, until the moderator, Ms. Crowley, intervened. “He did, in fact, sir.”
And so he did. The day after the attack in Libya, Mr. Obama, in the Rose Garden, said: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”
He didn’t say it again in the weeks after, which is why Mr. Romney made his accusation. But it is incorrect to say that Mr. Obama did not initially call the attack an “act of terror.”
Actually, it's quite correct to say that Obama did not call the attack an "act of terror." Lachlan Markay at the Heritage Foundation dissected that claim.
In the speech in question, the president vaguely alluded to “acts of terror,” but he did not classify the Benghazi attacks as such. Given that the attacks took place on the anniversary of the most notorious terrorist attack in history, there was by no means a clear implication that the phrase referred to the then-ongoing assaults on American diplomatic facilities across North Africa.
Even moderator Candy Crowley, who insisted during the debate that Obama “did in fact” label the Benghazi attacks terrorism in the Rose Garden, walked back that claim in a post-debate interview. She said Romney’s critique was “right, in the main,” but that he had “picked the wrong word.”
CNN itself noted that the White House acknowledged Benghazi was a terrorist attack for the first time a full nine days after the attacks themselves, as Ezra Dulis of Breitbart News pointed out.