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Open Season On Chelsea? Tabloids Say She's Now Fair Game

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 26, 1998; Page C01

For six years the press followed an unspoken pact to avoid coverage of Chelsea Clinton, allowing the president's daughter to grow up outside the harsh glare of journalistic scrutiny.

That wall of silence was shattered yesterday when the New York Post ran a screaming headline -- "CHELSEA'S HEARTACHE" -- saying she had broken up with her boyfriend at Stanford and visited the campus medical center for stress-related symptoms. Days earlier, the National Enquirer and the Star carried expose-style cover pieces on the 18-year-old sophomore.

"The mainstream press has been very respectful of the president and first lady's desire for privacy concerning their family and daughter," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. "The journalistic standards of some of the tabloids speak for themselves."

What about the New York Post, whose story -- based on a "source" and "friend," both unnamed -- was quickly picked up by the Associated Press and various radio stations?

"I wouldn't consider the New York Post part of the media," Lockhart said. "The only difference between the New York Post and the supermarket tabloids is the supermarket tabloids have color pictures."

New York Post Editor Ken Chandler said Chelsea "deserves privacy up to a point," but "I don't see that this story was an invasion of privacy at all. She happens to be the daughter of the president." Chandler said Lockhart "is entitled to his opinion."

The larger question is whether the children of celebrities should be just another juicy morsel for a voracious press. Some politicians, of course, thrust their kids into the spotlight. Vice President Gore, for example, spoke movingly at the 1992 Democratic convention about his young son's car accident.

But the first family has always been especially protective of the girl who was born during Bill Clinton's first term as governor of Arkansas. Until they posed for a People spread in 1992, many Americans were unaware that the couple had a daughter. The president wouldn't allow cameras when he spoke at Chelsea's Sidwell Friends graduation. She has been photographed on foreign trips with her mother, but most people have never heard her voice.

The supermarket tabs zoomed in on the first daughter last week. The National Enquirer and the Star quoted a "campus pal," a "well-placed source" and an "insider" on how Chelsea is coping with the Monica Lewinsky affair. The Enquirer said she had a screaming match with her father and that her health is suffering. The Star said she's convinced that her parents will split up after they leave the White House.

Enquirer Editor Steve Coz says he dropped his hands-off policy toward Chelsea when she adopted a high profile on Martha's Vineyard after President Clinton's Aug. 17 confession. "She was the one shaking hands with everyone in the crowd," Coz said. "She was the one to demonstrate the family was still intact. They used her for publicity, basically. At that point, Chelsea crosses a line. She becomes part of the White House publicity machine."

Besides, he said, "at some point you stop being a kid."

Star Editor Phil Bunton offered a similar rationale: "She's getting more mature. She's inevitably been dragged into a peacemaking role between her mother and father and the fallout from the whole Monicagate thing. We felt, within some boundaries, it was all right to investigate her."

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said the freewheeling media culture "has agreed on one element of Washington coverage: that Chelsea was off-limits. Now the tabloids, as their thunder is stolen by an increasingly sensational mainstream press, have decided they can distinguish themselves by breaching perhaps the last protected area of common decency."

Chelsea Clinton, he said, "didn't run for anything. She is an innocent here. What happens to her is not a matter of consequence to the state or the public. This is purely a matter of gossip."

Hillary Rodham Clinton's office has consistently refused to comment on Chelsea's activities. "Chelsea is just trying to be an average kid going to college, and it's difficult to do that," said Marsha Berry, the first lady's spokeswoman.

To be sure, Chelsea has popped up in the news before. The San Jose Mercury News reported last May that she had been hospitalized for stomach pains. Just about everyone recorded for posterity her relationship with Stanford swimmer Matthew Pierce. And there were reports -- inaccurate, as it turned out -- that she planned to drop out of college after her father's confession regarding Lewinsky.

Dealing with celebrities' children has always been tricky terrain for the press. Most journalists don't want to be seen as exploiting the offspring in their pursuit of high-profile parents. But sometimes an event -- a drug bust or drunk-driving arrest -- forces the children into the news, even though the same story would never be written about someone with an obscure last name.

By contrast, the cover of yesterday's Star served up a triple dose of adolescent invasion: "Monica to Chelsea: I'm Sorry"; "Di's Grieving Son Treated for Depression" and "Secret Anguish of O.J.'s Daughter."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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