The story of Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan, and the way it has unfolded over the last few days, has demonstrated as much about media — and the way most of us now consume it — as politics.
TV news often has a rough time getting its arms around complex issues, like immigration policy or the nuances of a counterterror campaign. Politics isn’t always as stirring or neatly constructed as an episode of “The West Wing.”
But here parts of those complex issues were given a human face. Here was an in-the-flesh example of Muslim assimilation — a man who had lost his son, yet who espoused patriotism to the point of literally brandishing a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution. Not only was the couple’s grief universal and relatable, but the Khans put a face on Muslims who are pursuing the American Dream just as countless other ethnicities have done.
It’s no secret that TV news is drawn to these kinds of human-interest stories, whether they’re heartwarming or heartbreaking. That helps explain the coverage the Khans have been receiving, and the public relations nightmare they have become for Donald Trump’s campaign.
It also helps to explain why the Khans were at the Democratic National Convention in the first place. Both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions featured presentations from parents who had lost children. Such material is intended to strike an emotional chord, and — in a recognition of the way TV news is processed and packaged — to draw viewers and further coverage. These conventions are, like so many other shows, selling a product — in this case, each party and its standard bearer. And so they work hard to tap into TV’s predilection for up-close-and personal storytelling.
This is hardly a phenomenon unique to the conventions. One need look no further than the upcoming Olympics to see how it works, and in how many spheres. The coverage will not just be about who wins any given race; it will be about heroes. Viewers will know about these heroes’ families, their hardships, their personal struggles, the better to appreciate their triumphs — and their disappointments.
Trump is supposed to understand TV like few others. But he appears not to comprehend the actual dynamic at work here, and has compounded the problem with his response. The brash style the candidate has exhibited during the campaign might have been well suited to belittling political rivals. In this context, it opened him to an onslaught of condemnation.
It was as if Trump was so preoccupied with having been criticized, he couldn’t recognize an irresistible made-for-TV story when he saw one. He took umbrage at Khan’s remarks, without any initial trace of empathy for, or acknowledgement of, the loss responsible for putting the Khans on that stage.
Conservatives at Fox News and the Media Research Center have cited what they see as a media double standard, comparing the attention focused on the Khans to the RNC presentation by Patricia Smith, who lost her son in the Benghazi terrorist attack.
Obviously, the ideological prism through which one sees politics influences such perceptions. Yet the two moments differed in significant ways, which were then exacerbated by Trump’s ill-considered choice to wade in and lash out at the Khans.
Another politician would know better than to joust with Gold Star parents, but Trump has magnified the story — and indeed, fueled it.
Trump subsequently sought to turn the conversation back to the threat of terrorism. But by then, he had lost control of the narrative. And as the Khans made the media rounds through the weekend and into this week, the interviews they gave only enhanced the picture of a family anyone could recognize.
After the Khans appeared on MSNBC Monday, the Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman called them “the utter expression of American exceptionalism.” Other panelists talked about growing up with parents or grandparents who, like the Khans, spoke with an accent.
Indeed, whether it is told by someone speaking with an accent or not, anyone can identify with a deeply personal story about a slain war hero and his grieving parents. And Donald Trump should have understood that.