On Wednesday evening, a link appeared in red on the Drudge Report: “NOT FUNNY: Hillary Goes After Comedians for Making Fun of Her …” It led to a story put out by Judicial Watch, a conservative legal group that has played a key role in the perpetuation of the Benghazi investigation. The piece said that a staffer from Hillary Clinton’s campaign threatened Jamie Masada, founder of the Laugh Factory chain of comedy clubs, over a video compilation of Hillary jokes on the Laugh Factory website. “Besides demanding that the video be taken down, the Clinton campaign has demanded the personal contact information of the performers that appear in the recording,” Judicial Watch said. In short order, right-leaning sites including NewsBusters, NewsMax, Mediaite, the Daily Caller, and the Daily Mail aggregated the accusation.
This seemed bizarre. Even if you buy the most grotesque right-wing caricatures about Clinton’s humorlessness and authoritarianism, it’s hard to believe that the campaign would be so clumsy, especially at a time when it’s going out of its way to make the candidate seem fun. Such a demand would only reinforce the worst stereotypes about Clinton while ensuring that the offending video went viral. Besides, there’s nothing in the video itself to attract the campaign’s notice: It’s less than three minutes long and is mostly stale cracks about Hillary’s clothes and age, along with familiar insinuations that she’s a lesbian. One of those insinuations is even admiring: “I would love if you become president, divorce Bill, and then you marry a bitch,” says Tiffany Haddish.
Yet there was Masada—a man who has won awards from the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP, and has no discernable right-wing agenda—quoted as saying, “They threatened me. I have received complains before but never a call like this, threatening to put me out of business if I don’t cut the video.”
So I called him. 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. He asked Masada “who had put him up” to posting the video. In a menacing voice, he told Masada, “This is not good for your business.” John then asked for the email or phone numbers of the five comedians who were featured in the video. “I told him, ‘Eff you,’ and I hung up,” says Masada.
How does Masada know that John was actually from the Clinton camp? He doesn’t. “I’m glad I’m not in politics or any of that stuff; you might know more than I do,” he says. “Maybe it was a prank, I have no idea. Was it real? Not real? I have no idea. He didn’t call back, that’s all I can say.” Nor is Masada sure how Judicial Watch even heard about the call. “The way I understand it, it’s because one of the [Laugh Factory] employees told a couple of people,” he says.
There are a few possibilities about what might have happened here. Maybe someone from Clinton’s campaign really did think it was a good idea to call a major figure in the world of stand-up comedy and make empty threats over a short video. Maybe the caller was a random, overzealous Hillarybot. Maybe it was a practical joker. Or maybe it was a dirty trickster, who then took steps to send the story ricocheting through conservative media. (For what it’s worth, the Clinton camp tells me the call didn't come from them. Judicial Watch tells me they stand by their story.)*
Regardless, the ricocheting has now begun. Earlier Thursday, a piece went up on Sean Hannity’s website: “Watch: Hillary Is Trying to Get This Video of Comedians Making Fun of Her Taken Down.” Rush Limbaugh talked about it on his show: “The news about Hillary today is that she’s so offended at what comedians are saying about her at an L.A. comedy club that she—her campaign is actually sought the names and contact data for the comedians that are cracking jokes about her. … Hillary Clinton is offended at the jokes being told, and she wants the names and contact data of the people offending her so I assume that she can bully them or frighten them or pressure them into shutting up.”
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 the1990s, 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.
*Update, Nov. 19, 2015, at 3:55 p.m.: This paragraph has been updated to add responses from Clinton's campaign and from Judicial Watch.