But that doesn’t make it calculated or insulting to Dr. King’s legacy, as many in the media suggested. And it certainly doesn’t give it racial overtones. (And to suggest that merely referencing Dr. King gives it racial overtones…well, the flaws in that logic are obvious.) But that’s how it was portrayed:

“In US Political Campaign, Clinton Defends Her Comments on Race” (MSNBC)
Clinton “dogged by continuing racial tensions around her presidential campaign” (Politico)
“Analysis: Will race matter to Dems?” (AP)
“Racial tensions roil Democratic race” (Politico)
“Racial Tensions Heat Up In Dem Campaign” (CBS News)

Et cetera. In his New York Times column on Saturday, Bob Herbert accused Hillary of “taking cheap shots at, of all people, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” ABC News’s Political Punch blog argued that Clinton “seemed to dis” MLK. Keith Olbermann, in a piece called “Dem-olition” on last night’s “Countdown,” went and declared that, between Clinton and Obama, “one is being racist—unless the other is falsely accusing that one of racism.” The Washington Post’s The Trail blog analyzed how the racial storm has been brewing for some time now, casting the petty-and-out-of-context debate, oddly, in the same terms of inevitability once reserved for one of its participants.
All that from a comment that had nothing to do with race, save for its reference to Dr. King. So—for the second time in a week, alas—we have to ask: What the #$!% happened? How did media coverage transform ill-advised-but-innocuous commentary into “racial tensions,” into a “fractured Democratic party”? And how did it get there so quickly?

A source many of the mainstream sites linked to in their initial coverage of Hillary’s MLK comment was Fox News’s Major Garrett’s Blog—The Bourbon Room, it’s called—in which he trumpets his interview with Clinton and, in so doing, incorrectly characterizes her treatment of Dr. King:

Clinton also said Obama and Edwards have acted like hypocrites during the race and appeared to diminish the role Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. played in the civil rights movements, saying it wasn’t hope that King inspired that made the difference but President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to fight for and sign the Civil Rights Act into law.

Let’s leave aside the questionable logic that to acknowledge Johnson’s role in the civil rights movement is to diminish Dr. King’s. Instead, let’s go back to the game of Telephone—and, specifically, its most basic law: that, when the first person to hear and spread the word misinterprets that word, there’s no recovering. The “Clinton diminishing Dr. King’s role” narrative caught on, with her words—taken out of context—used to reinforce it. The Politico’s Ben Smith continued the misinterpretation, calling Clinton’s comment, last week, “an odd example for the argument between rhetoric and action.” Then others got in on the action: Rep. James Clyburn, South Carolina’s most prominent African-American elected official, accused Clinton of denigrating Dr. King and the civil rights movement. “We have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics,” he told The New York Times.

Then came the Spin, which the media happily filtered. Bill Clinton guested on Al Sharpton’s and Roland Martin’s radio shows. Clinton’s supporters filled the airwaves. So did Obama’s. Michelle Obama, speaking at the Trumpet Awards in Atlanta, decried Bill’s supposed likening of her husband’s candidacy to a “fairy tale” (more on that in a minute). Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) defended Clinton on “Hardball.”
John Edwards, in a feat of rhetoric befitting a trial lawyer, managed to raise not one, but two middle fingers in Clinton’s general direction as he connected Fairytalegate and MLK-gate in an interview:

“I must say I was troubled recently to see a suggestion that real change came not through the Rev. Martin Luther King, but through a Washington politician. I fundamentally disagree with that. Those who believe that real change starts with Washington politicians have been in Washington too long—and are living in a fairy tale.”

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.