POLITICS

How The Khans Became A Weeklong Story: An Explainer For Howard Kurtz

Donald Trump can't let sleeping dogs lie, at least not when there's a chance to malign their patriotism instead.

It’s been five days since Khizr and Ghazala Khan took the stage at the Democratic National Convention. They came to tell the story of their son, U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who died in 2004, and to pillory Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump for his flamboyant anti-Muslim bigotry.

Five days, and the media is still talking about it. And this has, in turn, greatly confused Fox News’ eminently confusable media critic, Howard Kurtz, who seems not to understand why the Khans’ turn in the spotlight has become a multi-day story, nor why a similarly aggrieved parent who spoke at the Republican convention has not received the same kind of attention. Per Kurtz:

The media have given this man and his wife an enormous platform ― in a way they conspicuously declined to do when Patricia Smith blamed Hillary Clinton at the Republican convention for the death of her son in Benghazi.

OK, well, let’s puzzle this out for him!

Part of the reason the media has become fascinated with the Khans involves the public’s relative lack of familiarity with them. And part of it has to do with how the two conventions were sequenced. When the Khans appeared onstage last Thursday, very few people had ever heard of them, or knew the story of their son’s bravery. Nobody knew exactly what Khan was going to say. And so, in the natural course of events, reporters watching the scene reported the “what” of what happened ― Khizr Khan waved his pocket Constitution at Trump in withering criticism of his worldview ― and then took the time to report the “who” ... as in, “this man and woman, who are they?”

By contrast, Patricia Smith had been in open conflict with Hillary Clinton over the attacks on the Benghazi compound, which claimed the life of her brave son, for quite some time prior to the Republican convention. Last October, Smith had a moment in the media that was just as powerful as the Khans’, when she tore into Clinton on CNN during an interview with Carol Costello. Smith followed that up with an encore turn on MSNBC with Andrea Mitchell, and she’s been a go-to source for Benghazi segments ever since. As a result, by the time the GOP convention got started in Cleveland last month, the Smith-Clinton feud had already been extensively publicly litigated. Univision’s Jorge Ramos cited Smith during the March Univision-Washington Post Democratic debate, where Clinton responded that Smith was “absolutely wrong” in her contentions.

Perhaps that’s why Smith spoke at the RNC on its opening day. She was already well-known to Clinton’s critics, and unlikely to say anything of greater newsworthiness than she’d already been saying for months. Had the organizers wanted to craft a lasting moment around Smith’s testimony, they should have sequenced her appearance similar to how the Democrats scheduled the Khans’ ― in a Thursday night primetime slot engineered for maximum Sunday show-baiting. (For all of that, “Fox News Sunday” did bring up Smith during their July 31 interview with Clinton.)

But you know, this is all really beside the point! The real reason everyone is still talking about the Khans is simply because Donald Trump ― in just a shocking, wholly unforeseeable turn of events ― decided he had to go and make a fight out of this. Since Thursday, Trump has done what he can to further antagonize the Khans, seemingly bent on a mission to get other Gold Star families, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and various other “military luminaries” to publicly condemn him for disparaging the grieving parents of a fallen soldier. (Plus he’s been maligning fire marshals for doing their job and keeping people safe, because why not!)

If you want to know why Smith’s appearance at the RNC didn’t turn into a whole big thing, you need only look at how Clinton reacted to it. This is information that Kurtz does, in fact, have available to him. Clinton’s response to Smith, delivered on the aforementioned “Fox News Sunday” interview, went like this: 

CLINTON: Chris, my heart goes out to both of them. Losing a child under any circumstances, especially in this case, two State Department employees, extraordinary men both of them, two CIA contractors gave their lives protecting our country, our values. I understand the grief and the incredible sense of loss that can motivate that. As other members of families who lost loved ones have said, that’s not what they heard, I don’t hold any ill feeling for someone who in that moment may not fully recall everything that was or wasn’t said.

Clinton’s critics have, naturally, accused her of painting Smith as a liar. I might contend that she was simply saying Smith is wrong in her assessment. But that’s neither here nor there, because the secret to not further inflaming this matter is contained within the part of Clinton’s response where she says that her “heart goes out to” Smith and others, and that she recognizes the bravery of those who were lost, and that she empathizes with their loved ones' grief. Clinton’s not seeking to antagonize Smith or imply something nefarious about her. She’s giving space to Smith’s opinion and emotion before she even offers up her own measured self-defense.

Just about any other Republican candidate would have taken the same approach as Clinton. Donald Trump need only have said something like: My condolences go out to these parents. We obviously have political differences, but their son was a hero to his nation and this family is worthy of our respect.

That’s it, man! It’s like 29 words. Say something like that and we put this episode to bed. 

As one should be able to predict by now, that’s not the path Trump chose, instead getting himself into a full-on media conflagration with the Khans through his statements and those of his campaign surrogates. Most notably, in an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, Trump argued that his financial success was a “sacrifice” equivalent to what the Khans have endured, and that Khizr Khan’s remarks were manufactured by the Clinton campaign (they weren’t). He also implied that Ghazala Khan’s silence as her husband talked about their son’s death was because of bad, scary, oppressive Islam, rather than, you know, the sort of overwhelming grief that human beings feel under such circumstances.

“If you look at his wife,” Trump said, “she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.”

Dude! The words "you tell me" are literally an invitation to keep the story going. The next thing the media was obligated to do was find out why Ms. Khan said nothing on the convention stage. This was a matter that she was more than happy to discuss, as it turned out.

Throughout it all, Trump continues to tweet about the Khans. And while his campaign has, through other channels, taken pains to be a bit more polite, referring to the Khans’ son as a “hero,” the fact that Trump doesn’t seem to sincerely feel any sense of magnanimity only heightens these contradictions ― thereby extending the media’s fascination with this cascade of unforced errors.

Oddly enough, while Kurtz does highlight some of the disparaging things Trump’s surrogates have said about the Khans, he doesn’t include any remarks from Trump himself, save for a brief mention of the belated efforts at politeness, and a glancing acknowledgement that Trump wondered why Ms. Khan didn’t speak at the convention. Instead, Kurtz seems to want us to believe that Trump has been the victim in all of this. “Every day that Trump is talking about Khizr Khan,” Kurtz wrote Tuesday, “is a day he’s not talking about jobs or taxes.”

Well, Trump's a big boy, you know? That’s kind of a choice he's been making for himself.

Kurtz does cite two examples of media figures behaving badly. He notes that GQ contributor Bethlehem Shoals, a.k.a. Nathaniel Friedman, tweeted something really gross about Patricia Smith’s RNC appearance (”I don’t care how many children Pat Smith lost, I would like to beat her to death”) for which he was later forced to apologize. And he notes that MSNBC’s Steve Benen had a bit of headline hypocrisy in the way he framed each convention’s grieving parents.

These two examples, though, don’t really speak to any wider, systemic discrepancy in the coverage of the Khans versus the coverage of Smith. And if Kurtz really is bent out of shape at how little air time Smith has received, he needs to take it up with his corporate masters. As Politifact’s Neelesh Moorthy reported:

Smith’s speech, on the first night of the Republican National Convention July 18, 2016, began around 8:24 p.m. ET.

The speech was aired live by both CNN and MSNBC. It was not live on Fox News, coincidentally. Fox News went to commercial right before Smith took the stage and returned to a phone interview between Donald Trump and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly.

That’s right! Patricia Smith’s convention speech was bigfooted on Fox by none other than the Republican nominee himself. So from start to finish, you can lay the blame for the Khans getting all this coverage right at the feet of Donald Trump. The Khans got a "conspicuously" “enormous" platform because Donald Trump is a conspicuously enormous bell-end. Mystery solved.

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims ― 1.6 billion members of an entire religion ― from entering the U.S.

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Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

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