Yes, I get why criticizing the dress and demeanor of two teenagers in the White House created some controversy. And, I totally understand that saying two teenage girls were looking for a "spot at the bar" was even more distasteful. Leaving politicians' kids out of the national conversation is one of the few boundaries that remain in politics and political journalism. But, why was Lauten SUCH a big story -- covered by cable relentlessly, driving scads of traffic online and even being picked up by the national nightly news?
Republican National Committee communications director Sean Spicer asked just that question in a trio of tweets Tuesday night.
So, why did Lauten become SUCH a big story? A few reasons, which I offer below. To be clear, this is not an attempt to fully justify everything that was written and said about Lauten, Rather, it's an attempt to explain why it was such an alluring story for so many.
1. Our reflexive defensiveness about kids being dragged into politics. You can say anything you want about an adult -- or damn close to it -- without causing all that much controversy. But, critique kids -- particularly how they dress/look/act -- and you walk into a political minefield. Remember that we were all young once and well all felt the horrendousness of being an insecure teenager worried about what everyone thinks of you. To go through that stage of your life in the full glare of the country is hard enough. To have to deal with snide comments from the sidelines while also weathering that stage is out of bounds. Then there is the inborn defensiveness of everyone who is a parent about having their children judged by strangers. As the dad of two young boys, it's okay for me or my wife to tell the kids to mind their manners or not wear whatever they have on. But if some stranger did it, I would go nuts. Combine those two factors and you see a sort of universality of experience that made the story so interesting for so many.
2. The slow news cycle. The Lauten news broke over the long Thanksgiving weekend. It crested on Monday when she resigned just as people were starting to get back into their normal daily routines. There was a vacuum of interesting news stories -- the Packers-Patriots game notwithstanding -- and Lauten filled that vacuum. That's not an excuse for the coverage, it's a fact. It's possible that if Lauten had said what she said in the midst of some other major news event it might not have caused anywhere near the level of controversy that it did. But, it happened at a time when there wasn't much else going on to knock it from the homepage/lead of newscasts.
3. Traffic/Ratings. Yes, there's no question that the Lauten story -- in all its forms -- did quite well for The Washington Post (and virtually every other news site in the country). I tweeted about that fact on Monday:
That led many -- mostly conservatives -- to conclude that the only reason that Lauten was such big news was because it represented a life raft for the perpetually-drowning mainstream media. "They'll chase anything that gets them page views," the thinking goes.
That's an easy analysis. But I think it overlooks a deeper conversation about what traffic/ratings mean. I view my role as a journalist to dive into stories that people are most interested in and explain/analyze/report on them. I want to be where the national conversation is at any given moment. Whether that's campaign politics, Ferguson, health care, the Supreme Court or Charles Barkley, I want to find a way to look at it through our unique (I hope) political lens and write something from there. Am I aware that doing that could/will generate traffic? I am. Is my prime motivation in doing so getting traffic? It is not. Anyone who is in journalism wants to be writing and reporting on the topics that average people are talking about and caring about. That's the nature of why we do what we do.
What comes first? The traffic or the interest?
4. The distaste for everything with the taint of "Washington politics." People hate Washington. As a result, they like hate-reading (or hate-watching) anything that affirms for them the essential loathsomeness of the nation's capital. Lauten using the Obamas' daughters to make a broader point -- that the president and first lady lack class and may be wanting on the patriotism front -- was, for many people who don't pay all that much attention to politics (which is most people), confirmation of just how low Washington has sunk. And, who doesn't want something/someone to look down on?
That's not to suggest that bias in coverage is entirely determined by word counts. But, for me, the idea that the key to understanding the Lauten coverage is the media's bias against Republicans just doesn't hold up.