No sooner had Barack Obama been elected president last November than the news media began flogging a now familiar truism about the Obama presidency: It's the first time in a long while that young children will be in the White House.
You could almost hear them salivating.
Not that the media haven't largely honored their past pledges to respect the privacy of First Children. But the first-day-of-school coverage of Obama's daughters, Malia and Sasha, making their way to Sidwell Friends brought back that pathetic image of photographers converging on poor Amy Carter and her Snoopy backpack.
And seriously, Malia and Sasha's adorability is off the charts.
“Our hope is that everybody will recognize that these are two young girls and [they deserve] privacy. And helping give them as normal a life as possible is not just the job of the media,” said Jen Psaki, deputy White House press secretary. “We hope that everybody respects that.”
The news networks seem to be taking heed. ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper says the network works to ensure their privacy, as when, unlike other news outlets, it refrained from revealing the girls' Secret Service code names.
CNN's Chief National Correspondent, John King (see Fifth Estater, p. 22), follows a basic tenet when covering presidential children. “It's sensitive, but it's pretty simple,” King said. “If they are living their daily lives, then they deserve privacy.”
Certainly entertainment newsmagazines are having a field day with all things Obama, including what Malia and Sasha wear and where they shop. But Linda Bell Blue, executive producer of Entertainment Tonight and The Insider, says her programs will not cross the line. She indicated, however, that footage of the girls in public is fair game for broadcast.
“Entertainment Tonight is not going to be stalking these girls,” Bell Blue said before adding, “Sure, we can shoot them going into a J.Crew store, but we're not going to stalk them.”
While the Obamas want to protect their daughters' privacy, they have at times played into the public's insatiable interest in the First Family, releasing candid photos and at one point during the campaign conducting a family interview for Access Hollywood with the girls miked-up.
“If the Obamas are going to enforce some strict rules or push requests strongly to the media, I think it's important that they do so on a consistent basis,” ABC's Tapper says. “Why a news show would not be permitted to do one thing and a show that is clearly a Hollywood tabloid show would be permitted is, to me, questionable. I think [President Obama] realized that, and they haven't been miked since.”
CNN's King agrees, suggesting that when the president brings his children to a public event, he is initiating coverage. Where things get murky, he added, is in the realm of tabloid journalism and new media, where paparazzi and gonzo bloggers may be less inclined to restrain themselves.
But Ken Layne, managing editor of D.C. gossip blog Wonkette, said the Obama girls' age and public behavior should dictate any coverage.
“Unless the kids are out in public, being cute, we have no real interest in them,” Layne wrote in an e-mail. But he invoked a certain Bush twin to indicate where the blogosphere might reasonably weigh in.
“If they go all Jenna on D.C. in a few years,” he added, “they are fair game.”
Ultimately, Layne adds, Obama has invited some of the tidal wave of public interest in his family.
“This is the first time since the Kennedys that we've got a young, attractive couple in the White House with adorable little kids,” he wrote. “Obama knew this going in, and he had no problem deploying his attractive wife and kids for PR reasons—from the opening screen of his campaign Website to his daughters being cute onstage at the Democratic Convention.”
For the time being, Malia and Sasha, much like the president himself, appear to be taking it all in stride. But the press may want to take to heart Malia's remark about her father's barrier-breaking presidency: Better be good.
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