Character Assassination?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2008; 9:07 AM

I slipped away for the holiday weekend, and when I arrived in New York, the tabloids were going wild over Hillary's RFK reference.

"SHE SAID WHAT?" exclaimed the New York Post.

The drumbeat had begun the night before, online and on cable, and within hours you'd have thought that Hillary Clinton had wished Barack Obama dead.

I was somewhat puzzled. Surely it was a clumsy and insensitive thing for Hillary to have noted, in explaining that past presidential primaries have dragged on through June, that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June of 1968. Clearly it was a mistake made by a tired candidate. She soon expressed her regret. But was it a blunder that warranted the denunciations that quickly descended on her?

If so, why did South Dakota's Argus Leader, where Clinton had made the comment, not pounce on it? Instead, the editor put out a statement defending Hillary on that point. And why did it not create a firestorm when she made the same remark to Time in March? This time, though, big online headlines on Drudge and in the New York Post helped whip the MSM into action.

Is there a journalist in the country who truly believes that Clinton was openly hinting that she had to stay in the race because Obama might be sidelined by some horrible fate?

My theory is that there's a lot of residual anger at Clinton to staying in the race beyond what members of the media believe is reasonable. The subtext to all these "What does Hillary want?" segments is that she is so consumed by ambition that she can't see straight, otherwise she'd have bowed out by now. So when she mentioned RFK, it matched the media narrative about the inexplicable Hillary, prompting some to seize on it as an insight into her dark mind.

So the coverage, in retrospect, seems "over the top," as NBC's Chuck Todd put it yesterday. But such is the danger of making pseudo-news on the cusp of Memorial Day weekend, when nothing else is going on.

Politico Editor John Harris reflects candidly on the role of the Web, and one Web site in particular:

"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. What gives? . . .

"On Friday afternoon, I heard my colleague, Politico reporter Jonathan Martin, bellow in excitement as he called me over to his desk. Martin was furiously typing away, not looking up as he told me the latest: Clinton had given an interview to the editorial board of the Argus Leader newspaper in South Dakota in which she answered inquiries into why she is staying in the race by citing the fact that it's only May, and RFK had been shot and killed in June.

"Here is what I was thinking: Wow. Maybe she has come unhinged? It's not as though such macabre thoughts have never occurred to me, but for Clinton to give public voice to such a scenario is bizarre. This is going to be a big story and is almost certainly going to shadow and quite likely accelerate the final chapter of her presidential campaign. Here is what I said: Martin, quick get that item up! He needed no prompting.

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