Patrick B. Pexton
Patrick B. Pexton
Ombudsman

Post’s coverage of first ladies riles readers

The wives of our presidents walk in a minefield of expectations — the first lady is supposed to be the nation’s unroyal queen, its top hostess, a fashion plate at the same time as a child rearer, a career woman and an issue crusader, plus the eternal earth mother, strong yet nurturing, kind to all yet with a backbone that can bolster her man. No one can possibly live up to all those roles.

And on some level Americans understand that. They know that first ladies are not elected; their husbands are. So these real White House wives of Washington consistently are the most admired women in America, and most people are inclined to give them a break.

Patrick B. Pexton

Pexton served as Post ombudsman from March 2011-March 2013.

Archive

So it was last week when Post readers called and wrote to criticize a blog post and a column about first ladies.

The July 11 Post Politics blog entry on Michelle Obama’s 1,700-calorie excursion to Shake Shack in Dupont Circle for a burger, fries, chocolate shake and a Diet Coke elicited howls. Readers saw it as a trivial, News-of-the-World type story and a lowering of The Post’s standards.

Here’s a typical comment: “This has to be one of the most unnecessary, non-newsworthy, tabloid-esque pieces I’ve ever seen in The Post,” said Brett Reynolds, a litigator at the D.C. law firm of Covington & Burling. “It is entirely unbecoming of The Post.”

Reynolds, like readers who complained about another Post story, said it was not a partisan matter for him. “I would have been equally surprised had The Post reported on the number of calories consumed by Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush or any other first lady,” he said. “There is . . . no redeeming news value in a story like this, and at a time when true, time-intensive investigative journalism is at a low point, I am stunned that a reporter is being paid to cover this story.”

In a similar vein, a female caller who asked not to be named said that her complaint about Post columnist Anna Holmes’s July 14 salute to Betty Ford also had nothing to do with partisanship. The caller, a self-proclaimed Democratic voter, said she was upset by this sentence penned by Holmes, who recently came to The Post from the feminist blog Jezebel: “Nancy Reagan is best known for adoring astrology, Barbara Bush for being a dowdy, white-haired matriarch.”

Ouch.

Said the caller: “I am outraged that an editor let that stand; it was a cheap shot.”

I spoke with Holmes, who said that had she had more time or space she might have given Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush more evenhanded treatment.

“It was definitely offhanded. I didn’t have the desire or the room to go into the detail about all of their history,” said Holmes. “When I think about them, those are the things that pop up immediately. I understand that people may think that’s unfair, but they’re not untrue. I don’t regret doing it.”

Allida Black, a research professor at George Washington University, is a scholar of first ladies. She, too, was upset at Holmes’s column.

Candidly calling herself “a raving Hillary Democrat,” she reeled off a list of accomplishments by Reagan and Bush that many people would recall: There was Nancy’s “Just say ‘no’ to drugs” campaign, her steely support of her husband and intelligent shaping of his image, and her courting and coaxing of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, during two state visits when communism was crumbling. Barbara Bush, meanwhile, pushed for early support for funding for HIV/AIDS care and worked to promote literacy.

“The press keeps writing these same old stories that treat these women as stupid, and they’re not,” Black said. “It’s outrageous to say those things about Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, and I campaigned my heart out against their husbands.”

I agree with Black. Anna Holmes writes interestingly about gender and politics and is entitled to all her opinions, but as Black noted, “The editors should have caught that.”

As for Michelle Obama and her burger and fries, the quick-hit blog post clearly went beyond the traditional boundaries for coverage of first ladies. But I see it as no great sin.

The Post has done maybe a half dozen stories about the president and vice president and the first lady going out for burgers or other informal food around town since they took office. The only difference in this one is the calorie count, done by an enterprising reporter who looked at the Shake Shack’s Web site to count them all up.

A little tabloidy, invasive and sexist? Well, yeah. But given Michelle’s child nutrition advocacy, a story not completely out of bounds.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For updates, read the omblog at voices.washingtonpost. com/ombudsman-blog/.

 
Read what others are saying