Psst, did you hear?…Hillary Clinton is questioning Martin Luther King, Jr’s legacy…Pass it on…

Psst…the Clinton camp is saying the Obama camp is deliberately stoking racial tensions…and the Obama camp is saying the Clinton camp is deliberately rewriting history…Pass it on…

Psst…the Clinton camp is denying the Obama camp’s accusations…Pass it on…

Psst…the Obama camp is denying the Clinton camp’s accusations…Pass it on…

Psst…the Democratic party may be permanently fractured…Pass it on…

The political press, this past week, engaged in an epic game of Telephone: hear the whisper, spread the word. It started last Monday, when Hillary Clinton was interviewed on Fox News and, trying to highlight her experience working within that labyrinth known as Washington, noted that it took a president—LBJ—to codify the work of MLK. Then, on Sunday, BET founder Bob Johnson introduced Clinton at a South Carolina campaign event, during which he compared Barack Obama to Sidney Poitier’s Dr. John Prentice in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (“I want to be a reasonable, likeable Sidney Poitier”) and alluded—glibly and unmistakably, though the Clinton camp tried to spin it otherwise—to Obama’s teenage experimentation with cocaine.

And now—despite last night’s truce between Obama and Clinton—the Democratic party may be broken. Or so some in the press are saying. NPR news analyst Juan Williams talked about the possibility of the MLK-legacy dispute leading to a “fractured Democratic party” on today’s Morning Edition; The Washington Post’s The Trail blog used the same term last night; the Christian Science Monitor declared that, “in going negative with Obama, something else is at stake: the next generation of Democrats”; Newsday, announcing yesterday evening’s truce, noted the “growing signs” that the leading contenders’ fight for the Democratic nomination is splintering their party; The Chicago Sun-Times columnist Lynn Sweet headlined her “racial tension” analysis with: “They try to cool things off, but race talk shakes up campaign.”

It’s fair to question the role that race is playing in the campaigns—and to question what this particularly divisive election will do, in the long run, to the Democratic party. But it’s both baffling and troubling that the media reached these points of Meta-Speculation via a single, and generally innocuous, comment. The evolution—from comment to story to intra-party fight to bigger story to intra-media fight to even bigger story to what-does-it-all-mean analysis—reveals a lot about the makeup of campaign coverage, from id to superego: its quick-fire nature; its viral makeup; its tendency to love a good dogfight even more than it loves a good horserace.

Take a look at the story’s humble origins. Here’s the Clintonian Comment in Question, and in full:

“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do; presidents before had not even tried. But it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became real in people’s lives because we had a president who said ‘We’re going to do it’ and actually got it accomplished.”

In that context, it’s clear that Clinton’s comment had nothing to do with race. Clinton was trying, counter-intuitively and perhaps a bit desperately, to highlight the unsung benefits of her being a “Washington insider”: to argue that, pragmatically, being on the inside of politics-as-usual would actually help her to get things done were she to become president. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, Clinton seemed to be saying, it takes a politician to make a law. It wasn’t about black-vs-white; it wasn’t even about rhetoric-vs-action (no one disputes that Dr. King brought much, much more than mere rhetoric to the Civil Rights movement); it was about insider-vs-outsider, experienced-vs-inexperienced. It wasn’t about Obama’s being black; it was about his being green.

Which is not to defend what Clinton said. We live in a sound-bite world, one that doesn’t generally appreciate or care to analyze the often painfully precise lines of her logic. She should have known how such a point might have been heard. Obama’s description of Clinton’s comment to Garrett was the right one: it was “ill-advised.”

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.”

Hillary herself, facing the one-man-firing-squad that was Tim Russert, tried to explain the comment on Sunday’s Meet the Press:

Dr. King didn’t just give speeches. He marched, he organized, he protested, he was gassed, he was beaten, he was jailed. He understood that he had to move the political process and bring in those who were in political power, and he campaigned for political leaders including Lyndon Johnson, because he wanted somebody in the White House who would act on what he had devoted his life to achieving.”

It’s a tricky thing to argue about your maltreatment by the press when, up to a couple weeks ago, you’d been christened by that same press corps as the foregone conclusion for the Democratic nomination. But it’s a trickier thing to have your admiration for a civil rights movement hero go from taken-for-granted to needing-articulation. Or, as Salon’s Walter Shapiro put it, “It is never a good sign when a Democratic candidate feels compelled to stress, ‘Dr. King …is one of the people I admire most in the world.’”

The whole affair, more than anything else, is incredibly sad. The two leading candidates of the party that, right now, seems to have the momentum going into the national election will, whoever wins the nomination, make history. We should be thrilled. We should be proud. But the past week’s “racial overtones” coverage reminds us that, however much our political universe has progressed, our media universe is still often one of ‘(sound) bite first, ask questions later.’

Perhaps lessons are being learned, though, if after the fact. The other story in all this—Bill Clinton’s “fairy tale” line in reference to Obama—was similarly taken out of context. (In short, Clinton was referring to Obama’s Iraq-war voting record, not his candidacy overall; for a longer, and great, summary, see the HuffPo’s Rachel Sklar’s analysis, here.) In what seems to be a tacit nostra culpa, MSNBC’s coverage yesterday did an entire segment on Obama’s war-voting record, carefully highlighting the Bill Clinton quote in context. NPR ran a similar piece this morning.

Today is Dr. King’s birthday; he would have been 79. And in today’s articles about the truce between two candidates whose candidacy would likely have made Dr. King proud of the progress he helped to invoke, the relief on the part of those describing that truce is nearly palpable. After a week of bickering, of he-said-she-said-they-said and back-and-forth, even the drama-loving press corps seems sick of it.


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