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The Forgotten Lessons of Khan

Published on 26th September 2019

Damon Linker is right. His August 28 column, "The eternal return of the Trump presidency," captures the eerie presentism that defines the Trump era; the sense that everything is at once changing and yet not changing at all, simultaneously fluid and firm. Key to this particular iteration of Groundhog Day is Trump's perpetually provocative behavior and the world's perpetually outraged response:

"The 'now' of the Trump era is a dynamic one filled with fluidity, flux, and constant turbulence, yet also following certain recurring patterns. Those patterns are so powerful, in fact, that they bring to mind the state of being evoked by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of 'the eternal return of the same.' Stories that appear to be monumental in importance explode, leading to a frenzy of coverage, attention, and analysis, but then they recede and disappear into irrelevance, forgotten in a matter of days or a week, only to be followed by the next monumentally important story that then disappears just as quickly and completely, like waves on a vast, boundless ocean...Most liberal pundits write the same column over and over again, spicing up the same old arguments and assertions with whatever details have popped up in the past few days. Center-right Never Trump columnists do exactly the same thing. 'Here is the latest evidence that Trump is corrupt/ignorant/racist/unfit,' week after week, month after month, with only the tiniest variations. Yet Trump remains president through it all. He does what he does, and the critics say what they say, and nothing changes."

Nothing changes. This is distressing, not just because Nietzsche might be right, but because the American media insists on being wrong. Broadly speaking, it has learned nothing about covering Trump; more specifically, it has learned nothing about the dangers of framing Trump in terms of high-minded condemnation. Trump certainly deserves the tides of moral outrage in which he is drowned daily. Absolutely. But political journalists' moralistic impulses often result in consequential reportorial blindspots. Perhaps no incident crystallizes this troubling dynamic as sharply as Trump's feud with the Khan family. 

On Thursday night, July 28, 2016, the concluding evening of the Democratic National Convention, Khizr and Ghazala Khan stepped up to the stage. They were the Gold Star parents of Captain Humayun Khan, a Pakistani Muslim and Army official killed in 2004 while serving in Iraq. Now, 12 years later, on national television, his parents invoked his memory in their denunciation of Trump. Their speech would be a hit, before Trump’s brutal response transformed the Khans into national symbols that dominated news coverage for a week.

The Khans were a potent political symbol because they sat at the intersection of American patriotism, symbolized by military sacrifice, and marginalized Muslim identity, made a major issue in the 2016 election by Trump's proposed Muslim ban. This also meant that the Khans embodied political themes revered on both the right and the left. They were Muslims, which endeared them to social justice-minded liberals, but they were also Gold Star families, which endeared them to the military patriotism championed by conservatives. This curious intersectionality helps explain the remarkably bipartisan nature of the backlash towards Trump for daring to insult the Khans’ character or minimize the magnitude of their sacrifice. Within the traditionally mainstream outlets, reporters were unanimous in their condemnation of Trump’s feud.

But as important as the Khans themselves are to understanding the complicated dynamics of the 2016 election, their media coverage is just as essential to understanding how the media covered Trump himself, and may help explain why so many reporters were wrong about Trump’s election prospects. While many conservative commentators have suggested that the extensive coverage the Khan family recieved in contradistinction to that of Pat Smith, another Gold Star parent, evidences a liberal media bias that tainted election coverage, a more useful diagnosis of the media’s problem may be that it suffered from an establishment bias; that is, a predisposition to the views of the elite class of Washington politicians with which it is so intimate. The brand of moral outrage that underpinned the media’s critical coverage of Trump ultimately told only one part of the story, a fact that reporters missed all too easily in the overwhelming tide of righteous criticism launched by both themselves and the political establishment they covered. As we now know well, 2016 was not the year of the establishment.

“You Have Sacrificed No One”: A Timeline of the Feud

“Tonight we are honored to stand here as parents of Captain Humaymun Khan and as patriotic American Muslims - with undivided loyalty to our country,” began Khirz Khan, standing alongside his silent wife, a picture of their dead son on the screen behind them. “Like many immigrants, we came to this country empty-handed. Our son, Humaymun, had dreams too, of being a military lawyer, but he put those dreams aside the day he sacrificed his life to save the lives of his fellow soldiers. Hillary Clinton was right when she called my son 'the best of America'.” Then Khan turned on Trump: “If it was up to Donald Trump, [Humayun] never would have been in America. Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims. He disrespects other minorities; women; judges; even his own party leadership.”[1]

The most powerful, and most memorable, moment of the speech was yet to come. Khan, after denouncing Trump and his policies, eventually addressed Trump personally, asking him if he had “even read the United States Constitution?” Then, his eyes never leaving the cheering and weeping Democrats in his audience, he pulled a pocketbook Constitution from his breast-pocket and defiantly waved it in the air. Then he delivered the killer line: “I will gladly lend you my copy.”[2]

In subsequent days this moment of the speech would be played and replayed on broadcast networks across the country, and the image of Khan raising his blue hand-sized US Constitution at Trump would come to define both the speech and the 2016 DNC. But Khan was not finished yet, as he went even further in his condemnation of Trump: “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”[3]

Khan’s speech in many ways overshadowed Hilary Clinton’s nomination acceptance speech, even if the latter received more immediate coverage due to its historical significance. Several newspapers and cable TV networks reported on Khan’s speech as the most memorable portion of the DNC and the one that best crystallized the Clinton campaign’s anti-Trump message.[4] But nothing in the initial coverage of the speech indicated that it would dominate the news cycle for days to come.

Two days after the Convention, in an ABC interview with George Stephanopoulos on July 30, Trump addressed the Khan’s speech in response to Stephanopoulos’s prodding. Trump briefly spoke about Khizr Khan, saying he “probably looked like a nice guy,” before directing his fangs to his wife, Ghazala, who had stood by her husband the entire speech without saying a word.[5] Trump suggested that people should find her silence strange, although Ghazala had already explained her silence as that of a grief-stricken mother during an interview on MSNBC’s “Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell.”[6]

“If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say,” said Trump. "She probably, maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say. You tell me. But a plenty of people have written that. She was extremely quiet, and it looked like she had nothing to say. A lot of people have said that."[7]

Stephanopoulos didn’t dwell on the implications of Trump’s statements, pivoting instead to another of Khan’s aggressive claims against Trump: that he had sacrificed nothing for the United States. How, Stephanopoulos asked, would Trump respond to that? Trump answered by first insinuating that Khan’s words were not his own but rather the Clinton campaign’s ‘speechwriters,’ and then by asserting that he has “made a lot of sacrifices,” citing his hard work and role in creating thousands of jobs. Even after Stephanopoulos objected, somewhat incredulously, as to the validity of labeling such things sacrifices, Trump doubled down on his claim, pointing to his partial responsibility for the construction of the Vietnam Memorial in downtown Manhattan.”[8]

Trump’s response received extensive news coverage, most either highlighting his insinuations that Ghazala’s Islamic faith prevented her for speaking or his bold claim to have sacrificed extensively for the country. The former assertion inspired Ghazala to pen an op-ed published in the Washington Post (which in turn received more coverage) that clarified the reasons for her silence: she still finds it difficult to speak of her dead son without being overwhelmed by grief.[9] Meanwhile, both she and her husband continued to make appearances on different news channels, where Khizr denounced Trump as possessing a “black soul.”[10]

And thus what began as a poignant speech at the DNC escalated into an open feud between Republican nominee for President and a Muslim Gold Star family, a feud that dominated media coverage of the 2016 election for an entire week. Trump’s provocative ABC interview inspired a wave of controversy that manifested itself in bipartisan denunciation, searing coverage, and further public appearances by the Khan family which inevitably led to more negative coverage. Trump’s campaign attempted damage control, releasing a formal statement the night after the ABC interview that praised Humayun Khan as a “hero” but that Khizr Khan had “no right to stand in front of millions of people and claim that I have never read the Constitution, (which is false) and say so many other inaccurate things.” Khan, in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the next day, on July 31, expressed his appreciation for Trump’s acknowledgement of his son’s heroism while still calling it “disingenuous” in light of Trump’s anti-Muslim policies.[11] On that same day, Trump, seeing that Khizr Khan was willing to take to the national airwaves to hit back at him, resorted to his favorite mode of communication: Twitter.

Trump sent out his first tweet addressing the Khans on the morning of July 31, three days after the speech: I was viciously attacked by Mr. Khan at the Democratic Convention. Am I not allowed to respond? Hillary voted for the Iraq war, not me!”[12] The next day, while CNN interviewed the Khan family, Trump sent out another tweet: Mr. Khan, who does not know me, viciously attacked me from the stage of the DNC and is now all over T.V. doing the same - Nice!” Then, less than thirty minutes later and after the Khan family finished the interview, Trump tweeted again, attempting to redirect the public conversation:This story is not about Mr. Khan, who is all over the place doing interviews, but rather RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM and the U.S. Get smart!”[13]

By the time the feud entered it fourth day on August 1st, and with it increasing condemnations of Trump by both Republican and Democratic officials, news outlets had begun to construct timelines of the feud to bring viewers out-of-the-loop up to speed.[14] Meanwhile, Trump had finally ceased to directly address the Khans, turning his ire instead to fellow Republicans who had condemned his feud with the Gold Star family. Thus ended the feud with the Khan family, as the story changed from Trump feuding with a Gold Star family to Trump feuding with the GOP, and media coverage concerned itself with the internal tensions threatening to tear apart the Republican Party.[15]

Two Grieving Parents, Two Different Treatments? : In Defense of the Media

Before exploring the very real journalistic failures exposed by the Trump-Khan feud, we need to to engage with and deconstruct a popular media criticism parroted by some right-wing partisans: specifically, that the media betrayed a liberal bias by mostly ignoring the speech of Pat Smith, the grieving mother of one of the slain soldiers at Benghazi, while providing abundant coverage to the Khan family.[16] Trump himself perpetuated this narrative, saying that “the media is very dishonest” because they “give [Pat Smith] virtually no airtime, and they give other people unbelievable amounts of air — just so unfair.”[17] However, an analysis by Mediaite found that the Khan family’s DNC speech initially received only marginally more coverage across three major news networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) than Pat Smith’s RNC speech (150 seconds versus 70 seconds), and even this slight difference can be explained without recourse to partisanship.[18] While the Khans did receive more initial and overall coverage than Pat Smith, crucial differences exist between their respective situations that render any direct parallel seriously flawed.

If the coverage of Pat Smith versus the coverage the Khans reveal a bias, it is one, quite simply, that is to what is new. Pat Smith’s testimony against Hilary Clinton was meant to make a political point that by then had been in the public awareness for nearly four years: Clinton’s irresponsible handling of Benghazi. Smith’s speech garnered limited media attention because Smith herself was hardly an unknown figure; she had done numerous TV interviews condemning Clinton, and her grievances were generally well-known and well-covered by the news media.[19] The RNC did give Smith an unprecedentedly massive platform from which to deliver her message, but the message itself had changed little over the course of three years. Khizr Khan, on the other hand, was a virtually unknown figure to the public. His story had been reported on in the New York Times back in 2004 and the Washington Post in 2005, but neither gave him much exposure. Clinton had mentioned him off-handedly in a rally speech in late 2015, but it wasn’t until his appearance at the DNC that Khan acquired something resembling national name recognition.[20] The unfamiliarity of his persona, along with freshness of his family’s tragic story of sacrifice and his provocative attack on Trump, meant Khan represented something genuinely novel and therefore me the criteria of newsworthiness.

More so, the content of Smith’s and Khan’s speech differed in significant ways, with the former offering an individual-based political critique and the latter affirming patriotic American values, a message with far more mass appeal. Both grieving Gold Star parents delivered political attacks on major party candidates, yes, but to characterize them in this simplistic manner erases some critical nuances. Pat Smith’s attack was a personal one on Clinton’s character, and thus its scope remained limited to Clinton as a person. In contrast, Khan’s attack was far-reaching, tapping into patriotic American sentiment and anchored in a topic relevant to an entire religious group. Provocative imagery saturated the Khan’s appearance, from a veil-wearing Muslim woman on a DNC stage to a Pakistani immigrant holding up the Constitution. Khan’s attack on Trump was not merely that he was a detestable individual, as Smith’s on Clinton was; it was that he was a detestable individual because he was fundamentally un-American, a far more sweeping and striking message. Khan portrayed his attack on Trump not as a denunciation of a particular political figure, but as a grand statement affirming the value of the American dream. The philosophical magnitude and profound symbolism of Khan’s statement not only rendered it newsworthy, but also garnered a positive reception from liberal and conservative pundits alike.[21]

Finally, Hilary Clinton ignored Smith, thereby allowing attention on her to die, whereas Trump’s vicious responses to Khan’s criticisms kept them in the news cycle. Clinton responded to Smith by sympathizing with her grief, but then suggested that because her account differed from other Benghazi parents that she may not be totally accurate in her assertions.[22] While Clinton’s response was not entirely respectful, as she exploited the mother’s grief to cast doubt on the validity of her statements, it was a far cry from Trump. Clinton only responded to Smith once in order to dismiss her, and from then on proceeded to ignore her. This left Smith trying to sustain a one-sided conversation that inevitably became old news in the absence of the reinforcement further Clinton responses would have provided. 

In the case of Khan, however, Trump responded and responded harshly. His initial response on ABC News barely acknowledged the Khan family’s grief, as Clinton had, and in fact immediately resorted to personal, faith-based tasks far more blatantly than Clinton had done. Trump initially bypassed Khan to go for his wife, trying to discredit him through her via a not-so-subtle allusion to Western fears of Islamic culture and women's' place in it, a cynical maneuver that outraged both the media and the Khans, who then struck back. Trump and the Khans,  willing to embroil themselves in a slugfest, gave the media plenty of fresh material to cover on a daily basis. Clinton had understood what Trump had not: that the most efficient way to defuse the political threat of a Gold Star parent’s accusations is to simply ignore them.

The Obfuscating Power of Moral Outrage: How the Media Missed the Story

But if Trump’s decision to respond to the Khans’ attacks prolonged media coverage of the family, then the overriding sense of moral outrage that characterized the media’s reaction is what made the coverage itself so witheringly intense. Vox’s Ezra Klein called Trump’s comments “horrifying.”[23] The Chicago Tribune saw the feud as evidence of Trump’s “empathy gap.”[24] John Oliver, almost teary-eyed, blasted Trump as a “sociopathic narcissist” and a “self-serving half-man” for failing to fulfill “the simple presidential duty of comforting the families of fallen soldiers.”[25] Indeed, the fact of Khizr and Ghazala Khan’s status as parent of a fallen soldier made Trump’s fight with them demographically cross-cutting in its relevance. The Khan’s Gold Star identity subsumed their Muslim one, transforming Trump’s feud with them from a narrow one concerning Muslim rights to a more expansive, and far more politically explosive, moral attack on Gold Star families, who hailed from all ethnicities and religions. 

Much of the mainstream media appeared to adhere to the principle articulated by Maureen Dowd in 2005: “the moral authority of parents who bury their children in Iraq is absolute.”[26] The Khans, in other words, were immune to political criticism by virtue of the loss they had suffered on behalf of the country. It wasn’t just that Trump had criticized them in Islamophobic and unsympathetic terms; it was that he had criticized them at all.

Tellingly, the media coverage of Trump not only slammed his behavior but outlined an alternative model response: acknowledge the parent’s sacrifice and then move on to a different subject. Indeed, during an CNN interview on August 1st with Jason Miller, Trump’s senior communications advisor, Brian Stelter outlined in clear and direct terms the proper behavior expected of Trump by both the media and political establishment: “Why is Donald Trump continuing to respond to Mr. Khan rather than staying quiet and allowing Mr. Khan to speak rather than being challenged, or to acknowledge more forthrightly the pain the family’s going through?” [27] The behavior described comes straight from the political handbook deployed by Hilary Clinton against Pat Smith. 

What made Trump’s initial response so galling, then, was the thorough manner with which it violated proper protocol with respect to Gold Star families. He not only failed to acknowledge the Khan’s grief and sacrifice (apart from calling Khizr a “nice guy”), but appeared to equate his success as a businessman with their sacrifice as the parents of deceased soldiers.[28] Even when Trump backtracked somewhat by acknowledging Humayun Khan as a hero, he persisted in his criticisms of the Khan parents themselves. The overwhelmingly negative news coverage of Trump, then, was fueled in large part by his refusal to conform to political convention.

The moral outrage that typically characterized Trump’s press coverage, heightened in the case of the Khan family, likely made the news media more likely to interpret his continuing feud with the Khans in extremely negative terms, even when alternative (and more positive) understandings of his comments existed. Consider again the CNN interview between Brian Stelter and Jason Miller. Stelter challenged Miller on the language Trump used in his official statement on the Khan family, specifically his accusation that Khan had “no right” to claim in front of millions that the reality star had never read the Constitution. Why, Stelter asked, was Trump suggesting that Khan didn’t have the right to criticize him when the First Amendment clearly guaranteed freedom of speech?[29] Stelter was not alone in interpreting Trump’s statement as an attack on the First Amendment, as the Washington Post, USA Today, TheHill, and even the libertarian Reason.com highlighted Trump’s “no right” statement in a manner that cast suspicion on the attitude it suggested that Trump had towards the Constitution.[30] Seth Meyers, in his coverage of Trump’s response on his late night show, articulated in explicit terms the argument implied by the media’s negative coverage: Trump’s disregard for Khan’s freedom of speech demonstrated his disregard for the Constitution, only highlighting “how unfit he is to be President.”[31]

And yet the media coverage of Trump’s comments, so caught up in the dual demonstration of ignorance and disrespect represented by the statement, was virtually unanimous in its failure to entertain another explanation for Trump’s words: that Mr. Khan, as a stranger to Trump, wasn’t entitled to making wild accusations about what he has done in private. Indeed, both of Trump’s comments about Khizr Khan’s “right” to criticize him suggest that Trump meant the word “right” in the colloquial sense of ‘socially appropriate’ rather than a constitutional sense of ‘legally permissible.’ He prefaced his argument that Khan couldn’t criticize him by stating that Khan “has never met me.” Trump reiterated this same argument in the tweet he sent the following Sunday morning: “Mr. Khan, who does not know me, viciously attacked me from the stage of the DNC.”[32]

Trump’s fixation on the fact that Khizr had never personally met him suggests a twofold understanding of his argument: one, that Khan lacked credibility since he felt comfortable making accusations against people that he did not know, and two, that the Gold Star’s father’s criticism were baseless because they pertained to personal details that Khan had no way of ascertaining. In other words, Trump was arguing that Khan indulged in inappropriate social behavior by smearing a stranger like himself. This simple argument, however, was distorted by the media’s insistence on interpreting “right” in terms of fundamental constitutional law rather than the more casual use of everyday conversation. The media’s operating mode of moral outrage likely made such a narrow understanding of Trump’s words appear plausible, because such an interpretation of his language only reinforced the established media metanarrative of Trump as someone lacking in both knowledge and character.

But it was the media’s moral outrage that exposed a much more fundamental disconnect between the conversations about the Khan family held by the elite political establishment and by Trump. Throughout the course of the feud, the dominant concern of most of the mainstream media was whether Trump had crossed a line by criticizing a Gold Star family.[33] “Did Trump go too far?” asked a CNN headline[34], as did MSNBC (“Did Trump go too far with his attack on a Gold Star family?”).[35]

That criticizing a Gold Star family is politically unacceptable was already taken for granted, without need for further debate. The elite Washington class concurred, as demonstrated by the fierce bipartisan backlash to Trump’s comments, especially pronounced from Republicans. “There’s only one way to talk about Gold Star parents: with honor and respect,” tweeted Governor John Kasich, a former Trump campaign rival. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham was even more blunt, saying that “there used to be some things that were sacred in American politics—that you don’t do—like criticizing the parents of a fallen soldier even if they criticize you.”[36] The message was clear: the very act of questioning a Gold Star parent, regardless of the content of the questioning itself, was strictly out-of-bounds. The potential fallout of violating that golden political rule forged both the media narrative and the elite political class’s response (distancing themselves from Trump).

And yet for Trump, this was not a conversation with an apolitical family but rather political opponents with whom partisan warfare was perfectly permissible. The real estate mogul had long acted on an ideology of allowing no slight to go unpunished, and he brought this approach to his politics. Hence his brutal jabs at anyone who crossed him politically, even a prisoner of war like John McCain.[37] Trump was remarkably egalitarian in the application of this philosophy, and so he saw no reason to treat the Khans any differently than he did all his other critics: with unforgiving antagonism. Trump treated the Khans, in other words, as political opponents open to attack. After all, they had denounced him from the stage of the Democratic National Convention, an inherently partisan setting. Whereas the media and political establishment disassociated the Khan family from the political context in which they had appeared, adhering to the idea expressed by White House spokesperson Eric Schultz that support for Gold Star families should “rise above politics,”[38] Trump situated the Khans firmly within the Clinton camp, evidenced by his repeated references to Hilary’s vote for the Iraq War (in which the Khans’ son died, implying that the Khans were working with the wrong candidate) as a defense of his actions.[39]

Trump, then, believed his criticism of the Khan family legitimate because they shared the same political arena, whereas the media and political establishment found his actions morally repugnant because it represented a political violation of what was supposed to be inherently apolitical (the grief of a fallen soldier’s parents). The disconnect between the two was further highlighted by Trump’s response to the backlash that greeted his comments: not to denounce his previous criticisms, but to attempt to logically justify them.[40] For the media and the politicians, however, the problem was not so much the content of the attacks (though they took plenty of exception to that as well) but existence of the attacks themselves. Debating morally unacceptable comments was a moot point.

Thus, the Khans' status as grieving parents and private citizens helped them avoid scrutiny as potential political affiliates of the Clinton campaign. The Clinton campaign reaped the benefits of their newfound national fame, stepping out of the way of the Trump-Khan feud to allow it inflict maximum political damage on the Republicans. This was a significant move, because it made it easier for the media to frame the conflict as one between cruel Trump and a patriotic American family, which obscures the fact that said family in this case was fulfilling a vital political service for Clinton. Khizr Khan took full advantage of his politically unassailable status, attacking Trump with a viciousness that would have been difficult for a conventional public figure: according to him, Trump had a “black soul” and lacked a “moral compass.”[41] Khan even went so far as to frame denunciation of Trump as a moral responsibility that Republican leaders had shirked.[42]

Khan's moralistic language cast Democratic policy positions as inherently ethical and their opposite as unethical, a transcoding the traditional media generally did not comment on. In other words, the media coverage of the event, facilitated by the silence of the Clinton campaign and the nature of the feud's participants, obscured its inherently partisan nature. Khan served as powerful weapon for Clinton because he could be intensely political while still being treated as apolitical by the media. Trump’s disconnect with the media arose from his treatment of the feud as a typical partisan battle, where one always goes for the jugular.

We should note, however, that despite the extensive moralizing that characterized coverage of the Trump-Khan feud, reporters historically have not believed Gold Star families to be immune to criticism. Consider the case of Cindy Sheehan, a Gold Star mother whose son was killed in Iraq. She came to prominence in August 2005, when she set up a camp outside of Bush’s orchard in Crawford, Texas, and demanded a meeting with the President. Sheehan became a media sensation overnight, receiving extensive coverage throughout August and beyond, and was invited to talk shows on national television. She soon became the face of the emerging antiwar movement, brandished by Democrats as a political weapon with which to beat the Republicans.[43]

Cindy Sheehan’s situation obviously differed from Khan’s in many ways, but she is relevant insofar as her antiwar crusade exposed the limits of reporters’ tolerance for Gold Star parents and illustrated their willingness to question them, often with remorseless severity. Sheehan was initially the target of vitriolic backlash mostly from right-wing media, which often attempted to smear her character. Bill O’ Reilly insinuated that Sheehan’s political stances were “treasonous,” while David Horowitz deemed her a “tool of anti-American forces.”[44] And despite her initial burst of positive coverage from more liberal news outlets, Sheehan eventually overstayed her welcome, as her controversial political statements caught up with her. Slate’s Christopher Hitchens accused her of using her Gold Star status as “moral blackmail” to avoid defending her controversial anti-Zionist politics[45], while CNN’s Anderson Cooper insisted that she justify her claim that President Bush was “the biggest terrorist in the world.”[46] Niall Stanage of The Guardian lamented the “epic narcissism” of Sheehan for presuming to speak on behalf of all Gold Star families.[47] Indeed, despite Maureen Dowd’s characterization of Sheehan’s moral authority as “absolute,” it was precisely that authority that would come to be repeatedly challenged by conservative and liberal news outlets alike. 

The news media would demonstrate this same willingness to hold Gold Star families accountable for their words when POLITICO fact-checked Pat Smith’s Benghazi claims.[48] Even Khizr Khan proved to not be immune, as the press challenged his claim in 2017 to have been denied travel privileges outside of the US.[49] The immunity to criticism enjoyed by Gold Star families, in other words, does not apply to the news media but rather to the politicians of Washington.

And yet, the news media’s willingness to interrogate the claims of Gold Star families as a matter of journalistic practice suggests that granting these families critical immunity is a political norm rather than an ethical principle. After all, reporters can do it just fine, even if politicians can’t due to their positions of leadership. The privileged treatment of Gold Star families, then, is a political norm established which reporters holds politicians accountable to, even if they do not hold themselves accountable to it. Despite reporters’ attempts to cast Trump’s aggressive questioning of the Khan family as a repulsive violation of basic human decency, then, their own willingness to do so reveals that the news media does not actually abide by this supposedly universal dictum. 

One can argue that this is an unfair equivalence, as Trump’s initial comments to the Khan family were condemned because they smeared the character of the couple. Yet even Trump's later responses, which were milder addressed the political stances of the Khans rather than their personal traits, were similarly panned by the press and the political class.[50] The dynamic that this illustrates, namely that reporters can criticize Gold Star families even if politicians can’t, shows that unconditional respect for grieving parents is not a universal principle of human decency but rather a convention maintained in American political culture. Trump’s attack on the Khan family, then, had generated such a hostile media backlash not so much because a Gold Star family had been criticized as for the fact that a politician had done it.

By suggesting that Trump’s violation of this political norm profaned basic human dignity, the news media conflated human decency with political convention. This fundamental error underpinned the influx of articles generated by the Khan controversy that suggested that Trump, by going after a vulnerable family rather then the political establishment, had violated the American people’s fundamental sense of decency and thereby undermined his base of support. Indeed, news outlets like POLITCO suggested that the feud was a McCarthy-like moment for Trump, paralleling it to the iconic “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” that ultimately felled the anticommunist senator.[51] Reporters’ belief that the Khan squabble had inflicted fatal damage to Trump’s candidacy betrayed their presumption that voters shared the political establishment’s understanding of what constituted “human decency.”

In reality, Trump’s supporters followed his lead in treating the Khans as political entities (and therefore valid objects of critique), and as such did not perceive as morally offensive Trump’s feud with the Khans. CNN’s Jeffrey Lord asserted that “when anybody, anybody, Gold Star or not, gets up and attacks a presidential candidate at a national convention, that is politics.”[52] Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandoski agreed, stating that “when someone attacks you publicly in front of a stage of millions of people, you have the ability to respond.”[53]

The few news outlets that bothered to investigate what everyday Trump supporters thought about the feud found similar opinions among his supporters, most of whom thought that Trump’s comments were either not offensive[54] or justified due to the fact that he was attacked first.[55] The mother of an Air Force service member was even booed at a Trump rally when she questioned Mike Pence on the “disrespect” that Trump had shown towards the Khans.[56]

The far-right wing media, which largely endorsed Trump, adhered to this basic view in their coverage: the Khans were not untouchable private citizens but hostile political opponents worthy of investigation. Indeed, when challenged by a radio host to explain the reason his right-wing website, The Daily Caller, had posted an article on Khizr Khan’s immigration work in a manner that “questions the motives [of] the father of this lost soldier,” deputy editor Scott Greer responded that there was “nothing wrong with…reporting on a public figure’s background” who had spoken “on issues that are not relating to his son’s death.”[57]

The far right’s “reporting”, however, usually took the form of smear campaigns. Thus the claim by anti-Muslim and far right-winger Walid Shoebat, which argued that Khizr Khan was an undercover Brotherhood operative who wished to establish Sharia law in the United States.[58] It was then reiterated and repeated on Breitbart, which cast suspicion on the Khans as “financially and legally tied deeply to the industry of Muslim migration–and to the government of Saudi Arabia and to the Clintons themselves.”[59] Prominent Trump ally Roger Stone tweeted a link to Shoebat’s story, basically endorsing its claims.[60] Meanwhile, the Daily Caller, another right-wing news site, reported that Khan had “written extensively on Sharia law,” which again Breitbart also reported (with the slight but significant change of “on” to “in favor of”).[61] Breitbart’s misleading report that the Khans received fifty times the media coverage that Pat Smith did from major news networks was reported on by a broad swath of right-wing websites, including FreeMarketCentral, Hunt4thetruth, FreeRepublic, and beyond.[62]

Some of these conspiracy theories even reached the shores of the (relatively more) mainstream FOX News, which repeated the false claim that coverage of the Khan’s DNC speech far exceeded that of Pat Smith’s RNC speech.[63] This vast network of right-wing websites, by drawing on each other’s faulty reports and endlessly perpetuating them, created what the Columbia Journalism Review calls an “internally coherent, relatively insulated knowledge community.”[64] The result of this insularity was a overriding discussion (the evil Khans) within the far right-wing media ecosystem that operated on entirely different premises from the mainstream discussion of the controversy (outrage over the victimized Khans and the immoral Trump).

As such, claims that the Khans were terrorist sympathizers received little mention in the mainstream political press, and thus were never discredited on a major media platform. Both left- and right-leaning papers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal appear to have mostly ignored as fringe politics the Breitbart-led right-wing metanarrative of the Khans as sharia law advocates and Clinton surrogates. And yet Breitbart and its ilk are anything but fringe. As reported by FiveThirtyEight shortly after the controversy, by July 2016 Breitbart had nine percent of all online news traffic and 18 million visitors.[65] While these numbers might pale in comparison to giants like the New York Times, they demonstrate that Breitbart had built a significant news presence. More so, the conspiracy theories peddled by Breitbart and similar news outlets had tangible influence. 

While the scarce on-the-ground reporting done during the Trump-Khan feud left the mainstream news media largely in the dark as to what Trump supporters, and not just congressional Republicans, actually thought about the whole Khan fiasco, outlets like The Guardian and Mother Jones found that many Trump supporters were not just accommodating of Trump’s comments but in fact believed Khizr Khan to be untrustworthy. Several repeated the claim that Khan was a Muslim Brotherhood operative infiltrating the US on behalf of Saudi Arabia.[66] As such, despite the efforts of fact-checking websites like Snopes to debunk the Brotherhood conspiracy theory and Mediaite to deconstruct the “50x more coverage” claim, they were oases of truth in the desert of mis- and disinformation that was the far-right media ecosystem.[67]

What we find then, is that the mainstream news media’s overarching narrative of the Khan feud as a moral violation threatening to implode the Trump candidacy was largely a fiction. Reporters narrated a drama largely confined to the political establishment itself, and then proceeded to graft the dynamics of that drama onto the broader American electorate. This move failed to account for a basic reality: the Republican congressmen’s condemnation of Trump did not translate to voter condemnation of Trump. The news media and the political class it covered had a mutual understanding of what constituted politically unacceptable terrain, but this was an understanding that neither Trump nor his supporters, in the media and otherwise, shared. As such, the very vocabulary with which the mainstream news media framed the feud, as one which desecrated universal notions of human decency, fell out-of-sync with Trump’s own view of the conflict as yet another battle with yet another political opponent. 

Reporters failed to understand that the moral outrage that so dominated their coverage only reinforced Trump’s self-fashioned image as the defiant hero of the establishment, because said moral outrage had been defined in accordance with the norms of that same establishment. The mainstream news media’s construction of a metanarrative built on premises of moral outrage not shared by either Trump or his supporters kept it from engaging with the new forces (however dubious) in political journalism that actually catered to, and reflected, the thoughts of many in the Trump camp.

Conclusion

What the Trump-Khan feud ultimately demonstrates about the coverage of the 2016 election is not that it was stained by a rampant liberal bias, as conservatives who compared Pat Smith to the Khans argued, but rather by an establishment one. Trump’s repeated assaults on the Khans were undoubtedly harsh, but they were seen by himself and by many of his supporters as the sort of brutality standard in political sparring. The notion that they represented a deep-rooted violation of a universal sense of human decency was above all a projection by the media and political establishment of its own political norms onto the broader American populace. This disconnect also blinded the mainstream media to the influence of the far right’s echo chamber, which exerted a nontrivial influence on people’s interpretation of the feud between Trump and Khan. And yet mainstream media coverage did not reflect this, giving instead the misleading impression that Trump's presidential candidacy had collapsed simply because members of his political party had condemned him. This was the essence of the establishment bias that blinded so many of America’s pundits to the reality on the ground in 2016, and that made its results so surprising: the idea that their own reverence for traditional political norms was shared by everyone, and more importantly, that the socio-ethical framework of the elite political class reflected that of the everyday American.

With the rise of influential right-wing outlets, the mainstream press needs to adjust to the reality of the new ecosystem and actively engage news networks that appear isolated but no longer operate solely on the fringe; only by doing so can it interrogate the often unchallenged but damaging claims perpetuated by the likes of Breitbart, which went largely unaddressed during the Khan controversy despite their influence. Some might argue that entertaining the outlandish claims made by such outlets only serves to legitimize them. In reality, ignoring them, as the press did during the Khan controversy, only allows people with an interest in believing them to do so, which can have real consequences when the time comes to cast a vote.

But Trump has continued to shatter presidential norms on a daily basis, and unfortunately, reporters have still not learned  to keep their outrage, moral or otherwise, from inundating their coverage in a manner that can conceal important realities. The Washington political class of journalists seems unable to internalize the notion that what they perceive as moral obligations may be understood by others as political tradition, in which case many, like Trump supporters, will not lament but rather cheer their violation. The media's failure to internalize and apply this lesson is perhaps the defining feature of our current eternal present. 

___________________________________________________________________________

[1] Staufenberg, Jess. "Khizr Khan's DNC 2016 speech: Read the full transcript from the grieving Muslim father who addressed Donald Trump." The Independent. July 29, 2016.

[2] Staufenberg, Jess. "Khizr Khan's DNC 2016 speech: Read the full transcript from the grieving Muslim father who addressed Donald Trump." The Independent. July 29, 2016.

[3] Ibid

[4] Jr., Richard A. Oppel. "In Tribute to Son, Khizr Khan Offered Citizenship Lesson at Convention." The New York Times. July 29, 2016.

[5] Turnham, Steve. "Donald Trump to Father of Fallen Soldier: 'I've Made a Lot of Sacrifices'" ABC News. July 30, 2016

[6] "Capt. Khan's parents remember their son." MSNBC. July 29, 2016.

[7] "Fury as Trump mocks Muslim soldier's mother Ghazala Khan." BBC News. July 31, 2016.

[8] Turnham, Steve. "Donald Trump to Father of Fallen Soldier: 'I've Made a Lot of Sacrifices'" ABC News. July 30, 2016

[9] Khan, Ghazala. "Ghazala Khan: Trump criticized my silence. He knows nothing about true sacrifice." The Washington Post. July 31, 2016. Accessed May 12, 2017.

[10] Zezima, Katie. "Khizr Khan calls Trump a ‘black soul’ and says McConnell, Ryan have ‘moral’ obligation to repudiate him." The Washington Post. July 31, 2016.

[11] O'Brien, Connor, and Rebecca Morin. "Khizr Khan calls Trump's statement on fallen son 'disingenuous'" POLITICO. July 31, 2016.

[12] Trump's remarks about the parents of a fallen Army captain become the latest trouble spot in his campaign. July 31, 2016

[13] Wright, David. "While Khan talks peace, Trump tweets against him." CNN. August 01, 2016.

[14] Collins, Eliza. "The Trump-Khan feud: How we got here." USA Today. August 02, 2016. Accessed May 12, 2017.

[15] Sarlin, Benjy, Katy Tur, and Ali Vitali. "Donald Trump Pushes Republican Party to Its Breaking Point." NBCNews.com. August 04, 2016.

[16] "Mainstream media's double standard: Khizr Khan receives 40 times more coverage than Pat Smith on ABC, CBS, NBC." Fox News. August 2, 2016

[17] J. (2016, August 02). Trump Complains About Networks Not Covering Benghazi Mom Live. And Again, There’s Just One Problem.

[18] T. (2016, August 18). No, Khizr Khan Speech Did NOT Receive 50 Times More Coverage Than Benghazi Mom Pat Smith’s.

[19] Tapper, Jake. "Mother of Benghazi victim: I blame Hillary." CNN. May 07, 2013.

[20] Timsit, Annabelle. "Seven Minutes That Shook the Convention." POLITICO Magazine. July 29, 2016.

[21] Stahl, Jeremy. "Conservatives Did Not Like Hillary’s Speech, Did Like Her Convention." Slate Magazine. July 28, 2016.

[22] Josh-feldman. "Benghazi Mother Pat Smith on Khizr Khan: ‘I Was Treated Like Dirt’ by Hillary Clinton!" Mediaite. August 01, 2016.

[23] Klein, Ezra. "Donald Trump's slander of Captain Humayun Khan's family is horrifying, even for Trump." Vox. July 30, 2016.

[24] Board, Editorial. "The empathy gap: Donald Trump makes it all about him (and why that's dangerous)." Chicagotribune.com. August 02, 2016.

[25] Mazza, Ed. "John Oliver Shreds 'Self-Serving Half-Man' Donald Trump." The Huffington Post. August 01, 2016.

[26] Dowd, Maureen. "Why No Tea and Sympathy?" The New York Times. August 10, 2005.

[27] "CNN's Brian Stelter Shuts Down The Trump Campaign's Attempt To Spin Attacks On Khizr Khan." Media Matters for America. July 31, 2016.

[28] Turnham, Steve. "Donald Trump to Father of Fallen Soldier: 'I've Made a Lot of Sacrifices'" ABC News. July 30, 2016

[29] "CNN's Brian Stelter Shuts Down The Trump Campaign's Attempt To Spin Attacks On Khizr Khan." Media Matters for America. July 31, 2016.

[30] Rupert, Evelyn. "Trump: Muslim soldier was a hero, but his father 'has no right' to criticize me." TheHill. July 31, 2016.

[31] "'Late Night' A Closer Look at Trump's Latest Controversy." NBC New York. August 2, 2016.

[32] Wright, David. "While Khan talks peace, Trump tweets against him." CNN. August 01, 2016.

[33] Stokols, Eli, and Louis Nelson. "Trump tests his limits." POLITICO. August 01, 2016. Accessed May 12, 2017. http://www.politico.com/story/2016/08/donald-trump-khan-veterans-limits-226529.

[34] Bradner, Eric. "Did Trump go too far?" CNN. August 01, 2016. Accessed May 11, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/31/politics/donald-trump-khizr-khan-family-controversy/.

[35] "Did Trump go too far with his attack on a Gold Star family?" MSNBC. August 01, 2016.

[36] Coleburn, Christina. "GOP Reacts to Donald Trump's Controversial Remarks on Khan Family." NBCNews.com. July 31, 2016.

[37] "'No war hero, loser': Republicans outraged after Trump's attack on McCain." RT International. July 19, 2015.

[38] Fabian, Jordan. "White House rejects Trump comments on Khan family." TheHill. August 01, 2016.

[39] Press, Rajeev Dhir The Associated. "Trump Praises 'Hero' Capt., Defends Criticism of Father." NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth.

[40] Press, Rajeev Dhir The Associated. "Trump Praises 'Hero' Capt., Defends Criticism of Father." NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth.

[41] Khizr Khan: Trump 'Void' of a 'Moral Compass.’ July 31, 2016

[42] Zezima, Katie. "Khizr Khan calls Trump a ‘black soul’ and says McConnell, Ryan have ‘moral’ obligation to repudiate him." The Washington Post. July 31, 2016.

[43] Houppert, Karen. "Cindy Sheehan: Mother of a Movement?" The Nation. June 29, 2015.

[44] "Conservatives, others in the media launch smear campaign against Cindy Sheehan." Media Matters for America. October 10, 2007. Accessed May 12, 2017. https://www.mediamatters.org/research/2005/08/17/conservatives-others-in-the-media-launch-smear/133669.

[45] Hitchens, Christopher. "Cindy Sheehan's moral blackmail." Slate Magazine. August 19, 2005. Accessed May 11, 2017.

[46] CNN. Accessed May 11, 2017. http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0508/15/acd.01.html.

[47] Stanage, Niall. "The epic narcissism of Cindy Sheehan." The Guardian. July 18, 2007. Accessed May 11, 2017.

[48] "Checking Patricia Smith's claims about Clinton and Benghazi." PolitiFact. July 18, 2016.

[49] Bearak, Max. "Khizr Khan’s claim that the U.S. is restricting his travel may be unraveling." The Washington Post. March 07, 2017. Accessed May 12, 2017.

[50] Burns, Alexander. "Ignoring Advice, Donald Trump Presses Attack on Khan Family and G.O.P. Leaders." The New York Times. August 02, 2016.

[51] Karabell, Zachary. "‘Have You No Sense of Decency, Mr. Trump?’." POLITICO Magazine. August 01, 2016.

[52] "CNN's Jeffrey Lord Defends Trump's Attacks On Khan Family: "This Is Politics"." Media Matters for America. August 01, 2016. Accessed May 11, 2017.

[53] "CNN's Corey Lewandowski Defends Trump's Attacks On The Khan Family By Claiming Trump Would Not Have Gone To War With Iraq." Media Matters for America. August 01, 2016.

[54] Jacobs, Ben. "Khan controversy: Donald Trump fans don't know or don't care." The Guardian. August 03, 2016.

[55] AJVicens. "We asked Trump supporters about the Khan controversy." Mother Jones.

[56] Nussbaum, Matthew, Eli Stokols, Cristiano Lima, and Nick Gass. "Mother of service member booed over Khan question at Pence rally." POLITICO. August 02, 2016.

[57] WNYC Shreds A Daily Caller Editor Over. (2016, August 07).

[58] "What The Media Is Not Telling You About The Muslim Who Attacked Donald Trump: He Is A Muslim Brotherhood Agent Who Wants To Advance Sharia Law And Bring Muslims Into The United States." Walid Shoebat. July 31, 2016.

[59] 2016Washington, DC0 Matthew Boyle1 Aug. "Clinton Cash: Khizr Khan's Deep Legal, Financial Connections to Saudi Arabia, Hillary's Clinton Foundation Tie Terror, Immigration, Email Scandals Together." Breitbart. August 01, 2016.

[60] "Trump ally Roger Stone claims Khizr Khan is a 'Muslim Brotherhood agent'" The Week - All you need to know about everything that matters. August 01, 2016.

[61] 20160, Breitbart News2 Aug. "Daily Caller: Khan Wrote Extensively in Favor of Sharia." Breitbart. August 02, 2016.

[62] Alex Swoyer1 Aug 2016Washington, DC 0. "TV Networks Give 50x More Air-Time to Khizr Khan than Pat Smith." Breitbart. August 01, 2016.

[63] "Mainstream media's double standard: Khizr Khan receives 40 times more coverage than Pat Smith on ABC, CBS, NBC." Fox News. August 2, 2016

[64] "Study: Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem altered broader media agenda." Columbia Journalism Review. March 3, 2017

[65] ClareMalone. "Trump Made Breitbart Great Again." FiveThirtyEight. August 18, 2016.

[66] AJVicens. "We asked Trump supporters about the Khan controversy." Mother Jones. August 3, 2016

[67] "Khizr Khan Is a Muslim Brotherhood Agent?" Snopes.com. August 01, 2016.



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