Opinion

The media's double standard on criticizing the children of famous people

What Elizabeth Lauten did to the Obama girls was wrong. But she's hardly a pioneer in this transgression.

Elizabeth Lauten will have more time for Christmas shopping this year, although perhaps fewer means to conduct it.

The staffer for Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) announced Monday that she will tender her resignation, after an avalanche of criticism for a Facebook post she wrote that criticized the attire and behavior of President Barack Obama's adolescent daughters, Sasha and Malia, at a Thanksgiving event last week.

Writing about their clothing, Lauten scolded, "Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar." After watching the two teens roll their eyes at the turkey-pardoning ceremony, which even many adults find tiresome and clichéd, Lauten wrote, "And certainly don't make faces during televised, public events … try showing a little class." That seems unduly harsh for two young girls engaging in wholly unremarkable teen behavior. Anyone who has parented a child through this stage would find this kind of scrutiny humorous at best, and appalling at worst.

Clearly, the two teens were merely stand-ins for Lauten's real targets. "Then again," she added, "your mother and father don't respect their positions very much, or the nation for that matter, so I'm guessing you're coming up a little short in the 'good role model' department." This gets to the reason why the response to Lauten was as critical and as sustained as it became. The House staffer used the two teenagers to attack their parents, exploiting barely noticeable passive-aggressive teen behavior to paint Barack and Michelle Obama not just as bad parents but also bad Americans.

As the controversy grew, I offered some advice on Twitter for those inclined to criticize the adolescent children of politicians, especially as straw men for their own agendas. "1. Don't. 2. When in doubt, see step 1." This didn't seem particularly controversial; it just seemed like common sense and fair play. However, fair play became precisely the point, especially when media outlets jumped on the bandwagon to denounce Lauten.

It wasn't always this way. During the Bill Clinton presidency, the media imposed a level of self-restraint when it came to commentary about Chelsea Clinton that was so impressive that it didn't end until the younger Clinton went to work for NBC News. Almost as soon as the Bushes moved into the White House, that restraint went out the window for Jenna and Barbara Bush, the twin daughters of the president. The news media became very interested in their social lives, especially their normal adolescent flirtation with alcohol, using it to remind readers of Bush's status as a recovering alcoholic. Saturday Night Live even aired a skit about the two girls in 2004, ridiculing them for the opportunity to attack their father (and Dick Cheney). No one called for the firing of Lorne Michaels, Tina Fey, or Amy Poehler.

Skip forward a few years to 2008, when John McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate. During the campaign, the media focused on the circumstances of Palin's fifth pregnancy, speculating openly that Trig had actually been the child of teenaged Bristol Palin.

No one lost a job over that baseless smear, nor did Carol Costello at CNN for this year's version of Palinoia. The Palin family made headlines for a fight that erupted at a party, which was certainly a legitimate news story. The CNN anchor, though, sounded positively gleeful to play the audio of a clearly traumatized Bristol describing how she had been assaulted. "Sit back and enjoy!" the CNN anchor told viewers. "This is quite possibly the best minute and a half of audio we've ever come across."

Costello had lectured viewers during the summer about "blaming the victim" when it came to domestic violence, after some blamed Janay Rice for staying in an abusive situation after getting assaulted by NFL running back Ray Rice, and Rice for committing violence in front of a camera. "Does that mean it's OK to deck your gal if no one is around to see it?" Costello asked. Less than two months later, the CNN anchor is chortling with glee over the younger Palin's assault.

That didn't result in a firing. It didn't even get a televised apology.

Finally, let's go back to a particularly close parallel to Lauten, in 2005. The Washington Post offered a fashion critique by Robin Givhan of Chief Justice John Roberts' children. "Separate the child from the clothes, which do not acknowledge trends, popular culture or the passing of time," Givhan wrote about their attire. "They are not classic; they are old-fashioned. These clothes are Old World, old money and a cut above the light-up/shoe-buying hoi polloi."

Did I mention that Jack and Josie Roberts were 5 and 4 years old at the time? Yet Givhan had no compunction about skewering them in order to paint their parents as snobs and out-of-touch aristocrats. The Post never apologized, and Givhan continued working there for another five years. She even won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for "transform[ing] fashion criticism into cultural criticism."

None of this should get Lauten off the hook. What she did was wrong and dumb. She worked in political communications, which means a higher profile and higher scrutiny than others on social media. As Brian Beutler put it at The New Republic, Lauten's job mainly consisted of keeping her boss from being embarrassed, so creating an embarrassment yourself is a quick way to a career change.

All of this underscores the wisdom of keeping critical scrutiny focused on the real participants in politics, and not their children, especially adolescents or younger. Not only is that a more honorable approach, it's more honest. If pundits and flacks can't make coherent criticisms of political figures without putting kids in the line of fire, they should find another line of work. But perhaps rather than appointing themselves the paragons of propriety in this regard, media outlets should take this opportunity to clean their own houses first.

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