Last week, President Barack Obama pardoned a turkey prior to Thanksgiving Day, as is tradition. And as in previous years, his teenage daughters Malia and Sasha stood by his side. The daughters are cute as can be — and Malia is growing into an absolutely beautiful young woman.
They are, however, teenagers. And they were, I guess, engaged in some mild teenage behavior — eye-rolling and smirking and what not. I watched a video of the event and didn’t really notice anything worth commenting on (apart from the interesting annual practice of Obama signing the cross over the turkey). But one minor Capitol Hill staffer thought the girls were dressed inappropriately and acted a bit churlish. And then, for some reason, she wrote about it on Facebook.
At which point some people lost their everliving minds. Her comments were posted on Twitter where the social media mob fed their hankering for constant outrage. There were petitions calling for her to be punished. And worst of all the media wrote and broadcast story after story after story about the matter. Elizabeth Lauten lost her job for saying mean things about President Obama’s children.
Now, Lauten is in communications and her job presumably included an assumption that she wouldn’t embarrass her boss. Besides, in a city where you can keep your job even if you’re involved in serious scandals at the IRS, State Department, Veterans Affairs or the Department of Justice, an actual job loss is refreshing, in its own way. She even gave a full-throated apology — within hours of the initial post — for being mean, not one of these “I’m sorry if” constructions that politicians frequently use.
Still, what in the world was the media doing reporting on this non-story and firing up the mob? The Washington Free Beacon reported that “major media outlets are pouring resources into tracking her moves and digging into her past.” This included two network news vans camping outside of her parents’ home in North Carolina and a search of Lauten’s leaked juvenile records and college writings.
This is insanity and each and every person involved should be ashamed of himself or herself. If you were involved, you are a big part of what’s wrong with journalism and you need to check yourself.
Explain yourself, Washington Post
A few years ago, I had this exchange with a Washington Post reporter:
Yes, I was told that the reason why the Washington Post was studiously avoiding any discussion of serial murderer and abortionist Kermit Gosnell was because it was a local crime story. The Washington Post previously avoided or subsequently went on to avoid covering the trial of George Zimmerman, the Grand Jury’s look at Darren Wilson and various other local crime stories. Just kidding. They gave those stories wall-to-wall coverage, as you might expect.
Anyway, the Washington Post ran a somewhat laughable explanation of why the paper failed to cover the story, an explanation I dissected here. A snippet from the Post’s story:
Martin Baron, The Post’s executive editor, offers a more mundane rationale for the newspaper’s lack of coverage: He wasn’t aware of the story until Thursday night, when readers began e-mailing him about it. “I wish I could be conscious of all stories everywhere, but I can’t be,” he said. “Nor can any of us.” …
Added Baron, “We never decide what to cover for ideological reasons, no matter what critics might claim. Accusations of ideological motives are easy to make, even if they’re not supported by the facts.”
OK, sure, sure. Yes, the Gosnell story was for years one of the biggest stories in the country for millions of Americans who are pro-life, but let’s just assume that “being even vaguely aware of major stories that are interesting and important” isn’t something we should judge executive editors on. Yes, it had angles dealing with late-term abortion, partial-birth abortion, infanticide, pharmaceutical rationing, exploitation of immigrants, racism, and abortion clinic regulations, but let’s just agree that the Washington Post’s struggle to see if any of those things were worth really exploring had nothing whatsoever to do with ideological reasons. Sure.
Now let’s turn back to the Lauten story and see if the Washington Post heard about it or covered it at all.
- Aide to Tennessee congressman knocks Obama kids
- The long and fraught history of judging the president’s kids
- White House: First daughters should be off-limits
- Indigestion over the Obama girls: Why a GOP staffer’s below-the-belt jabs were particularly wrong.
- GOP aide’s online dig at Obama daughters creates backlash: A GOP staffer criticized the demeanor of Sasha and Malia Obama at the turkey pardoning.
- Criticizing first kids? Still not a good idea. The ex-GOP aide who called out the president’s kids violated the unspoken staffer code.
- GOP aide resigns over criticism of Obama daughters
- When GOP staffer put Obama children ‘at a bar,’ it continued American tradition of trashing black females’ morality: Views like hers historically excused the abuse and disregard of human beings judged not worthy of consideration by people who also prayed.
- Hill staffer quits after comments about first daughters: Those on both sides of the political aisle believed Elizabeth Lauten broke a cardinal rule when she criticized the Obama girls in a Facebook post.
- Nothing classy about Elizabeth Lauten’s criticism of the Obama girls
- Hill staffer Elizabeth Lauten resigns after remarks about Obama daughters
Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear. So for those counting at home, this list includes not one, not two, but three (!) Associated Press reports and another eight articles or posts on the matter by Washington Posties. In four days. And I saved the best one for last.
See, somehow — and I don’t know if this was a reporter idea or an editor idea or just a complete breakdown of journalistic prudence on all sides — but somehow the Washington Post took a “foreign affairs” reporter and put him on the investigation of Lauten.
And that’s a real thing that happened.
Terrence McCoy wrote “One too many opinions from Hill staffer Elizabeth Lauten, who attacked Obama’s daughters and resigned,” a thorough digging up of dirt from her high school and college years. She had opinions on Darfur and Saddam Hussein, y’all.
Yes, the Washington Post had a reporter dig up dirt on a low-level former staffer who dared to criticize the presidential family. Is this real life?
I’d like someone to go ahead and circle back with Baron and have him explain himself. In what world — in what mother-freaking world — does he justify taking a foreign affairs reporter and having him dig up dirt on a low-level former staffer who said nothing worse about presidential children than the Post’s own columnists did in the Bush era? One of the items linked above is a Ruth Marcus column where she bashes this low-level staffer for critiquing the daughters, then notes she herself did it to the Bush girls –including attacking them for showing so much “cleavage”, being churlish, and their speaking style — but that it was OK because she did it under the guise of parody and they had notable busts. I’m not joking. You can read it for yourself. As John Podhoretz said, “Ruth Marcus’s double standard FOR HERSELF is absolutely astonishing.”
Is rape good or bad? I forget.
It’s not just the Washington Post. The Lauten story has been all over other print and broadcast media.
So we know that the national media is deeply concerned about stray insults directed toward the Obama family from Congressional staffers. Is raping people worse than that? Or not? I’m confused. Because a few years ago Congressional staffer Donny Ray Williams, Jr., was indicted for a series of alleged sexual assaults and it got only one “local crime” story in the Washington Post. Yesterday he pled guilty and that also generated one story in the Washington Post. If there’s network coverage of this congressional staffer raping people, I’m not seeing it. Did I mention he was a staff director for Democrats on a Senate panel?
Or what about child rape? We’re still opposed to that, right? I only ask because Terry Bean, a major campaign donor to President Obama — and a co-founder of the Human Rights Campaign — was just charged with sexual assault of a minor. And the Washington Post hasn’t covered it, according to a search of their archives. I mean, there are pictures of him on Air Force One and he was at the White House seven times including for a state dinner. He’s a member of the DNC. I know, I know, he’s certainly not as important as Lauten, but maybe a single story would be in order? Maybe that Terrence McCoy reporter could dig around and see if Bean wrote anything interesting in high school or something?
When do insults matter?
I already noted Ruth Marcus’ stunning hypocrisy regarding treatment of presidential children. On Twitter, S.M. noted that Salon’s Joan Walsh had her own troubles with consistency on whether it’s OK or not OK to go after presidential children. And this is not the first time Walsh has been called out for her double standards on the topic.
Let’s also note another example. When the painfully unfunny David Letterman made a “joke” about Willow Palin getting impregnated by Alex Rodriguez, the New York Times’ “ethicist” Randy Cohen wrote an 1,100-word qualified defense.
See, he explained, it’s OK because Letterman meant to suggest Bristol Palin was a slut, not Willow Palin, the 14-year-old. According to Cohen, David Letterman “should not be fired. He should not even have apologized.” Bristol was fair game even at the age of 17, he said, because she chose to participate in the presidential campaign. Cohen said that Letterman is “an honest guy,” “ethical,” and “determined to do the right thing” (NB: this was written a few months before news broke that Letterman’s multiple affairs caused him to get caught up in a $2 million extortion plot). Further, Bristol was “a legitimate subject” if “a slightly pathetic one.” He conceded the “joke” was a “bit bullying.” Cohen said that Willow and Bristol’s parents were faking umbrage or were unable “to get the joke.”
Only recently, you might remember, a CNN host telling viewers to “sit back and enjoy” listening to woman traumatized by assault, saying it’s “best audio in years.” That woman? Bristol Palin, of course.
It’s almost like you can detect a pattern for whose children can be criticized and whose children can’t be.
How is this news?
But it’s not just about presidential children. Insults in general are covered without any reasonable standard.
Remember when Vice President Joe Biden told a black audience that Mitt Romney was “going to put y’all back in chains”? Do you remember him having to resign? I don’t either. Maybe he’s not as important as a low-level Congressional aide and maybe his comments weren’t as incendiary as Lauten’s critique of fashion and attitudes. Matt Latimer presciently predicted at the time, “Whatever his motivations, he’ll emerge from this brouhaha unscathed. Because he is a Democrat.”
It’s not just Biden. You have your Charlie Rangels and your Al Sharptons routinely saying that Republicans want to enslave people. It barely causes a blip.
Why is it a bigger story for a House press secretary to critique fashion than for elected officials to accuse the other side of hating people to the point of wanting to own them? Could someone unpack the news sense on this one?
What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Low-Level Staffers
What’s perhaps most surprising in the media coverage isn’t that the New York Times covered the story or that the Washington Post put one of its eleventy billion stories on the matter on the front page. It’s that even the broadcast networks with extremely limited time constraints covered it.
And they covered it immediately. The Free Beacon reports that networks news combined to give nearly four and a half minutes of coverage on Monday night. These same outlets either dramatically delayed or completely failed to cover Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber saying the healthcare law was passed in 2010 thanks to a “lack of transparency” and the “stupidity of American voters.”
NBC aired a segment on Lauten that lasted more than two minutes and featured White House correspondent Kristen Welker giving a detailed breakdown of the story. Welker interviewed Ruth Marcus — yes, the same woman who made jokes about the cleavage of the Bush daughters — for the piece.
Why all this coverage of someone who made rude comments to presidential daughters? I will take the opportunity to quote Jonah Goldberg’s scathing indictment:
The reason Gruber has been so outrageously under-covered by the mainstream media is obvious: The whole story is an indictment of the entire ecosystem of establishment liberalism, from the supposedly “explanatory journalists” who picked sides from the beginning, to the academic elites who serve as willing mercenaries for the Democratic party (while pretending to be unimpeachably objective followers of the facts) to the press corps that carries water for the whole enterprise. Grüberdammerung runs against the narrative that only lovers of limited government are driven by self-interest and greed. It gives the average person a glimpse into how the sausage is made and embarrasses the sausage makers.
Or maybe there’s a case to be made that Lauten saying something that nobody should have called attention to is more important than Gruber’s “web of lies” funchats (caught on video not by Terrence McCoy or anyone else at the Washington Post, but, by a random dude). Wait, wait, I have a story idea: maybe Jonathan Gruber said something about Darfur in high school? Who can we get to check that out?
Burn it down
There are many wonderful reporters. They work hard to get the story right and provide a valuable service to their readers and viewers. But we have a serious problem — and it’s a problem at the editor level at least as much as it’s a problem at the reporter level.
Republican media operative Rick Wilson went on a beautiful rant last night about this embarrassing Lauten debacle. You can read the whole thing here. This is edited down but he wrote, “Reporters and media folks wondering, ‘Why don’t people trust us?’… The last couple weeks should be clarifying for you… But the endless, agenda-driven games are repellent to readers/viewers. Your sins are of omission and commission both… You used to be able to claim news judgement and ignore stories you hated. You still do, but now people see it, and you loathe it… So you’ll do one piece on Gruber, then pretend you dug in hard. But god forbid a staffer dings the Obama kids. Then you flood the zone… You pick and choose when to provide context… I love pros in the business. Love them. And most of you ARE pros. Most of you DO work stories, look for interesting angles… But you tolerate (and your editors tolerate) a lot of outrageous, absurdly bad practices. Gruber? Unforgivable… the frustration Americans feel about media isn’t getting any less acute, and some introspection might go a long way…”
Indeed it would. There are some tenacious and wonderful reporters. But the overall picture in many newsrooms is getting worse. Under no circumstances should scarce newsroom resources be diverted from real stories onto fake ones that have already been covered more than a Beatles hit.
There is a huge liberal bias problem in the media (fun recent graph related to the problem here). Pretending it’s not there is not going to make it go away. But pointing out the problems year after year isn’t making things better. Some of the media behavior post-election seems more like a toddler temper tantrum than a dispassionate news judgment.
Maybe Baron and his peers can attempt to defend what they did with this story. I would love to hear what they have to say. But if they wonder why journalists continue to be among the least trusted professions, a bit of introspection is in order.