A friend of mine watches Fox News so I don’t have to,1 and he says they’ve been practically wetting their pants over the story of Hillary Clinton’s campaign calling the founder of the Laugh Factory and threatening him if he didn’t take down a short video compilation of Hillary jokes.
What’s that? This already sounds really unlikely? I guess so. It sure doesn’t seem very smart for a highly visible presidential candidate, does it? Still, Judicial Watch says it happened, and Fox and Rush and Sean are all over it too. So I guess it must be true. They wouldn’t just make stuff up, would they?
Slate’s Michelle Goldberg called Jamie Masada, founder of the Laugh Factory, and he says that a few days ago he got a comically threatening phone call from someone named “John.” And that’s it. John never called back. Masada never told Judicial Watch about the incident. In other words, there’s almost literally nothing there.
But apparently some Laugh Factory employee heard about the call, and somehow it went from there to Judicial Watch. Or something like that. Who knows, really? *
What we have here is a small-scale demonstration of how the Hillary smear sausage gets made. It starts with a claim that’s ambiguous at best, fabricated at worst, and then interpreted in the most invidious possible light. The claim is reported in one outlet and amplified on Twitter. Other outlets then report on the report, repeating the claim over and over again. Talk radio picks it up. Maybe Fox News follows. Eventually the story achieves a sort of ubiquity in the right-wing media ecosystem, which makes it seem like it’s been confirmed. Soon it becomes received truth among conservatives, and sometimes it even crosses into the mainstream media. If you watched the way the Clintons were covered in the 1990s, you know the basics of this process. If you didn’t, you’re going to spend the next year—and maybe the next nine years—learning all about it.
And there you have it. This is where Mena airport and Vince Foster and Whitewater and the Clinton death list and all the other charming inventions of the Clinton smear squad came from. Seems like only yesterday.
1Really. Believe it or not, it’s part of his job.
*Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly suggested that Judicial Watch never contacted Masada in the reporting of its story. See update below.
UPDATE, 11/20/15: According to Judicial Watch, Masada told them the call had come from a “prominent” person inside Clinton’s campaign, who Masada declined to identify. According to Michelle Goldberg, who followed up afterward: “Masada told me that on Nov. 11, he got a call from a man named John—he doesn’t remember the last name—who sounded ‘distinguished, like an attorney.’ John said he represented the Clinton campaign.”
So Judicial Watch did indeed call Masada, and I apologize for suggesting otherwise. However, there remains zero evidence that the call actually came from anyone inside the Clinton campaign. It could be, as Goldberg points out, a harmless prank or somebody trying to make trouble for the campaign.