Malia malarkey

March 21, 2012

Almost every professional American journalist accepts the convention that the private lives of the president’s pre-adult children — their participation in school and extracurricular events; their private trips; their personal lives — shall not be covered except, as was the case with the Bush twins, when they’re charged with breaking the law.

The cone of silence that usually shields the president’s children temporarily lifted early this week as a variety of outlets, including Huffington Post and Yahoo News, and the websites of the London Telegraph and the Australian, ran stories about Malia Obama’s vacation in school trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, with classmates and 25 Secret Service agents. The White House contacted the outlets and asked that the Web pages be tossed into the memory hole. Most complied, but not before the Blaze captured screenshots of them. The administration even persuaded Politico to redact its original report about the excised pages because it contained information that raised “security” concerns at the White House.

The acceptance of the White House kids’ convention is so universal that even the supermarket tabloids tend to drop their snooping cameras and gossip-pouring pens when it comes to presidential offspring, although Weekly World News columnist Ed Anger played the dissident when he asked: “Why Are Democrats’ Daughters So Ugly?” in the paper’s Aug. 25, 1992, issue, just before Bill Clinton won the presidential election. Anger concluded that if Clinton reached the White House, Chelsea would be the “prettiest” daughter of a Democratic president in 40 years, “but she’s no Tricia Nixon,” he added.

Only a press absolutist would insist that reporters should track the daily comings and goings of White House kids. As George W. Bush’s wife, Laura Bush, said when she and her family moved into the White House: “Our girls are not public figures. They’re the children of a president.” But it doesn’t take a press radical to squirm at the relative ease with which the White House “persuades” publications around the world to delete Web pages already viewed by thousands and perhaps millions of people. (As I write, Black Celebrity Kids still hosts its Malia-in-Mexico story, complete with location photos from Oaxaca.)

Here’s the justification for the White House redaction campaign, as expressed in an email from Kristina Schake, Michelle Obama’s communications director, to Politico’s Dylan Byers:

From the beginning of the administration, the White House has asked news outlets not to report on or photograph the Obama children when they are not with their parents and there is no vital news interest. We have reminded outlets of this request in order to protect the privacy and security of these girls.

Schake fails to explain the logic or wisdom behind the White House’s effort to unring a bell. Indeed, the White House’s post-hoc Malia blackout only prompted more stories about the young Obama’s vacation school trip location to appear, some of them in outlets that pride themselves on their restraint in not covering the president’s children, such as the Washington Post and New York Times. If the White House wins many more similar victories protecting Obama’s daughters from press inspection, we’ll probably learn the home addresses of the girls’ best friends, the girls’ email passwords and the contents of the girls’ nightly prayers.

One would guess that the press has gotten nosier about presidential kids over the decades, but a content-coverage study from November 1963 to January 2001 of all 22 children who lived in the White House shows otherwise. The press seems to have dialed down its coverage. The Johnson daughters, Luci and Lynda Bird, received far and away the most attention in the New York Times of any children who lived in the White House in recent decades. There were 200 Times stories on Luci and 237 on Lynda Bird. (No adjustment is made for the number of years lived in the White House, and the study is limited to the Times and TV network news.) The number of Times clips about the Nixon daughters, Tricia (125) and Julie (102), trails those devoted to the Johnson girls. Pulling up the rear are the story totals for Amy Carter (43), Susan Ford (37) and Chelsea Clinton (32).

The book in which the study appears, Life in the White House : A Social History of the First Family and the President’s House, finds that Chelsea Clinton was the most popular TV-news subject, then Tricia Nixon, the adult Maureen Reagan (and primarily because she was so vocal), Julie Nixon, and Amy Carter. “First daughters, at least since 1963, have received an overwhelming amount of news coverage when compared to their male counterparts,” the book reports, although coverage might be a function of their youth, not their gender, it adds.

In his Washington Post piece, Paul Farhi establishes that today’s media landscape can no longer be regulated by presidential administrations and the established media organizations that subscribe to the White House’s ideas of what constitutes news. Towson University professor Martha Joynt Kumar tells Farhi: “Everyone has an iPhone and takes pictures. Everyone has [access to social media] … The conditions have changed, and it’s much harder to control information.”

The old-fashioned command-and-control model — in which the White House limits information about presidential children and the press obeys its requests to suppress reportage about them — can’t possibly continue even if it’s the “fair” thing for the kids. Like it or not, White House kids have become a kind of temporary American royalty, visual appendages to the father’s political ambitions, and all the presidential jawboning in the world can’t blot that out. What sort of sense does it make for the White House to continue to bully the mainstream press into covering the president’s family in a way that pleases the president when the mainstream press calls the shots?

The willingness of the websites, both inside and outside the mainstream, to erase stories that personally offend the president — even if as a father he has a right to be offended — speaks poorly of the press. I can understand why powerful media outlets might be frightened of earning the animus of the president. They depend on White House access to report news. But the spinelessness displayed by the London Telegraph, Yahoo News, the Huffington Post, and the other self-redacting sites in the face of White House criticism makes me yearn for a press baron who is willing to stand by his mistakes, not secret them in the nearest dustbin. (Call me a latter-day Ed Anger, but I don’t want to live in a world in which it’s all right for the government to assemble databases of my every airline flight but the president goes space-alien wild about a news report of a trip his daughter has taken.)

Besides, it’s not like the press has been invading the Obama daughters’ privacy. A Nexis search of “Malia Obama” turns up only 17 New York Times stories since her father was inaugurated. Of those 17 stories, two are about the spring break hoo-hah, and most of the others are incidental mentions. “Sasha Obama” returns only 13 hits.


I worked hard to exclude the phrases “First Lady” and “First Family” from my copy because it makes them sound, you know, royal. If you approve of my hard work, drop me a line at I’m told that my Twitter feed is big in Oaxaca. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

PHOTO: Michelle Obama (R) stands with her daughter Malia as President Barack Obama (L) delivers remarks during a day of service to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Browne Education Campus school in Washington, January 16, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


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Not quite sure what you’re arguing here, Jack. Free for all reporting on a president’s children? Let’s leave it all to self regulation? Even if the President is a father, he has no right to object to anything in the press? Also searching for evidence the President went ‘space alien wild’. Please clarify.

Posted by steve778936 | Report as abusive

If Obama doesn’t want his children in the news, then he should cease citing them in his speeches and press conferences. Most recently, he referred to his girls during his synopsis of the Fluke “incident.”

Posted by judithod | Report as abusive

[…] Jack Shafer in Reuters on covering presidential children When several major media outlets reported the news that Malia Obama would travel to Mexico on a school trip, the White House asked them to scrub the stories from the Web, as part of a general agreement to leave the first children out of the news. Most outlets complied. "The old-fashioned command-and-control model … can't possibly continue even if it’s the 'fair' thing for the kids," Shafer writes. He describes a bit of the history of this agreement on presidential children, but he writes that a new media landscape makes it silly for the White House to demand certain things of mainstream outlets. (The Malia story remains on several other websites, for instance.) "Like it or not, White House kids have become a kind of temporary American royalty, visual appendages to the father's political ambitions, and all the presidential jawboning in the world can’t blot that out." […]

Posted by Five Best Friday Columns | Con Games | Report as abusive

They have no problem exploiting the children when it suits them though.
I thought it embarrasing when the President made reference to his daughters in the recent free birth control matter.
The press should definitely have a hands off policy when it comes to the children. And that includes when they may be involved in less savory matters. It is bad enough they are in a media circus for 4 to 8 years, they don’t need everything pushed on to page 1.

Posted by CliffWebb | Report as abusive

I have a daughter Sasha’s age. If she were famous and on a trip to Mexico, I would do everything I could to keep that fact out of the news. Any responsible father would do the same.

Posted by Scientist1 | Report as abusive

I don’t see anything wrong with publicizing what it costs the taxpayers for vacations & other jaunts taken by the 1st Family and all othe elected pols.

Particularly during this Administration as the POTUS constantly slams those he considers convenient targets on whose backs he can rev up his base. This POTUS regularly lashes out at the big spenders – “the fat cat bankers” “the wall street crowd”, “big oil”.

Most of his fabled 99% cannot afford private school and Mexican vacations for their kids during spring break. It is therefore news when the POTUS spends the taxpayers’ money like a fat cat banker while knocking the fact cat bankers and professing britherhood with the less fortunate. On the other hand the POTUS is not spending the tax money of the 49% who don’t pay income taxes – so perhaps he thinks that gives him a bye.

Posted by abash40 | Report as abusive