Hillary Clinton was riding pretty high after her New Hampshire debate, wresting an apology from Bernie Sanders and padding her huge lead in the polls.
Not that many Americans saw ABC’s Saturday night debate, at least by the standards of this campaign (7.8 million). The DNC and the networks could hardly do a better job of keeping them off the radar. After two straight Saturday evening faceoffs, the next one will be on Martin Luther King weekend and up against pro football.
But the former first lady made one misstep that came back to haunt her: She hurled a charge at Donald Trump that is not true:
“He is becoming ISIS’s best recruiter. They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.”
Now if Hillary had stopped with the first sentence, it would have fallen under the banner of fair political comment. Plenty of critics, including Republicans, have charged that Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban most Muslims from entering the United States helps ISIS against the west. Some have talked about Trump’s plan being an ISIS recruiting tool. If Clinton had even said that the terrorists would be, or could be, showing Trump videos, it would have been accepted as the kind of flamboyant prediction that politicians make all the time.
But she said flatly that ISIS terrorists “are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump.” And there’s no evidence of that.
It would have been easy for Hillary to clarify her wording, but her campaign doubled down. When Trump called her a liar on the “Today” show and demanded an apology, her spokesman Brian Fallon said “hell no.”
In short, Hillary and her camp are perfectly willing to withstand the media criticism to keep the issue alive, as long as the focus stays on Trump and ISIS. Which is reminiscent of the way the Republican front-runner conducts his campaign. When no footage surfaced to support his claim of thousands of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey on 9/11—although there have been reports of a few dozen here and there engaging in such behavior—Trump kept repeating it and slammed the media for doubting him.
We are in an era where some candidates have decided to ignore the fact-checkers or dismiss them as partisan, knowing full well that the media are widely distrusted. (Trump just branded Politifact “a totally left-wing group.”)
So Clinton had handed Trump a club with which to attack her—but then he may have clubbed her too hard.
After calling her a liar at a rally, after calling it "disgusting" that she took a bathroom break that delayed her return to the debate, Trump did not stop. He brought up her 2008 race against Barack Obama, saying: “She was favored to win and she got schlonged, she lost.”
No, I didn’t know it could be used as a verb either.
Across the media landscape yesterday, all the chatter was about Trump’s language, not Clinton’s unsubstantiated allegation against him. Hillary’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, tweeted: “We are not responding to Trump but everyone who understands the humiliation this degrading language inflicts on all women should.”
This created a dilemma for news organizations that are not in the habit of using this S-word, as the Washington Examiner reports:
“NBC News would only call it ‘a sexually derogatory comment.’
“Both CBS News and ABC News would not print the word on their websites, with ABC calling it ‘a sexually derogatory remark’ and CBS dubbing it ‘an off-color word.’
“The Washington Post went a step further and said that Trump was using ‘a vulgar noun’ that specifically refers to ‘a large penis.’”
The Post even offered a “linguistic investigation,” quoting an expert as saying: “'Many goyim are confused by the large number of Yiddish terms beginning with ‘schl’ or ‘schm’ (schlemiel, schlemazzle, schmeggegge, schlub, schlock, schlep, schmutz, schnook), and use them incorrectly or interchangeably.'”
For his part, Trump tweeted last night: "For those on TV defending my use of the word 'schlonged,' bc #MSM is giving it false meaning--tell them it means beaten badly. Dishonest #MSM." He even found an NPR journalist using it to describe an electoral blowout back in 1984.
Trump, a master of changing the subject, wound up doing just that when a continued focus on Hillary’s misstatement would have helped him. Which doesn’t mean journalists shouldn’t keep pressing her to acknowledge her error.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.