Did Hillary's RFK Assassination Remark Deserve the Attention it Got?

When is a news story really a news story?

Is it when something really important happens, and media share it with the public? Or, is it when press members jump on what appears to be a juicy tidbit and broadcast it over the airwaves and in print for a solid 24 hours until every American has heard about it?

Consider the media firestorm set off Friday when Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, while discussing the history of nominations not being decided until June, mentioned the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.

According to Politico editor John F. Harris, this was "set aflame by a news media more concerned with being interesting and provocative than with being relevant or serious" (emphasis added throughout, h/t Hot Air Headlines):

This weekend’s uproar over Hillary Rodham Clinton invoking the assassination of Robert Kennedy as rationale for continuing her presidential campaign is an especially vivid example of modern journalism as hyperkinetic child — overstimulated by speed and hunger for a head-turning angle that will draw an audience.

The truth about what Clinton said — and any fair-minded appraisal of what she meant — was entirely beside the point.

Her comment was news by any standard. But it was only big news when wrested from context and set aflame by a news media more concerned with being interesting and provocative than with being relevant or serious. Thus, the story made the front page of The New York Times, was the lead story of The Washington Post and got prominent treatment on the evening news on ABC, CBS and NBC.

Big news indeed, as a Google News search of "Hillary and RFK" produced 3,405 results.

Moving forward, Harris acknowledged how his publication quickly jumped on this story when the first titillating snippets emerged Friday afternoon, only to find later that this wasn't the bombshell he initially thought:

Perhaps half an hour after the story broke Martin called me back over to his desk. It turned out the Argus Leader had video of its big interview. I huddled over Martin’s computer as we watched.

It was a deflating experience.

The RFK remarks were deep in a 20-minute clip of an otherwise routine conversation. Then, once we actually got to the relevant portion of the video, it was hardly an electric moment. [...]

But it was also clear that Clinton’s error was not in saying something beyond the pale but in saying something that pulled from context would sound as if it were beyond the pale.

It would be a big story if Clinton said something like this: “Hey, I know it looks bad for me now. But, think about it. Obama could get shot and I’d get to be the nominee after all.”

It is a small story if Clinton said something like this: “Everyone talks like May is incredibly late, but by historical standards it is not. Think of all the famous milestones in presidential races that have taken place during June.”

It seems pretty obvious that the latter is what Clinton meant, and not too far from what she actually said. It was not surprising that the Argus Leader’s executive editor, Randall Beck, put out a statement saying, “Her reference to Mr. Kennedy’s assassination appeared to focus on the time line of his primary candidacy and not the assassination itself.”

Harris accurately stated:

Clinton stepped on a rake with her comment and got bopped in the face. This was entertaining political slapstick, for those of us who like that kind of thing. Little wonder she apologized.

But Clinton’s clumsiness does not excuse news media clumsiness in making a minor story seem like a major one.

And accurately concluded:

In that sense, a news culture in which — like the amplifiers for “Spinal Tap” that go up to 11 — everything is exaggerated may not seem like a big deal.

But the consequences are more serious than meets the eye. The uproar du jour mentality in the media can be a hassle for public officials, but it can also be their friend. Hillary Clinton, for instance, can be glad that a serious look by The New York Times about Bill Clinton’s dealings with a Canadian tycoon trying to curry favor with a dictatorship never generated much interest from other media.

Politicians know that as long as they have a base of support they can probably ride out any story confident that the pack will soon move on. Only a news media with the focus and discipline to distinguish a big story from a small one can hold politicians accountable — and produce the work that deserves an audience.

Certainly. But, what Harris missed is indeed the randomness of media's focus.

For months, it has been clear an Obama-loving press have been trying to get Hillary out of the race. Virtually every gaffe she makes produces this kind of firestorm.

Why? Because media hope her most recent misstep will be her last, and will do everything in their power to make it so.

As such, though Harris is clearly correct concerning the press's pathetic over-reaction to this event, he ignored the larger issue. After all, on the same day Hillary was stepping on a rake, her opponent was telling people in Florida that Hugo Chavez took control of Venezuela during George W. Bush's watch, while several times referring to the city of Sunrise as "Sunshine."

Given that Obama is currently the front-runner, and Hillary is likely soon to exit the race, which misstep should have gotten more attention irrespective of whether or not the resulting firestorm was worth all the fuss?

Campaigns & Elections 2008 Presidential Online Media Politico Robert F. Kennedy
Noel Sheppard's picture