Debate Over Coverage of Bush Daughters


May 31, 2001 — -- Amy Carter was criticized for poor manners when she read at the table during a state dinner. Theodore Roosevelt once told reporters he could run the country or control his daughter, not both. Bill and Hillary Clinton made it clear from the start that Chelsea was off limits to the press.

Now, President Bush's daughters are in the spotlight, again raising debate over where the media should draw the line when reporting on a first family's kids.

Coverage of 19-year-old Jenna Bush's no contest plea to an underage drinking charge — and of an Austin, Texas police investigation into whether she and her twin sister, Barbara, attempted to buy a drink with another person's identification on Tuesday — have officials in the Bush administration telling an eager press that the Bush family reaction to the matter is off limits.

"This is and shall remain a private family matter," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said today at a White House news briefing. "Do you want the American people to know that you're asking about private conversations that took place between the president of the United States and his child?"

Fleischer did not fault coverage of the incident so far, which has been based largely on police reports, but he cautioned the media of a potential backlash from pursuing it too aggressively.

Some already question the extent of the coverage, which has appeared on the major television networks and in major newspapers.

Lisa Caputo, press secretary for Hillary Clinton when she was first lady, says the media should wait until formal police charges are filed before reporting, and questioned the news value of the story at all.

"I don't see what the national interest here is," Caputo said today on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "Why does the American public have to know that Jenna and Barbara Bush attempted to buy beer or a margarita, because they are under age? What does that have to do with the way their father governs the country? What does it have to do with the direction [the country] is going in? Not much, if anything at all."

Several experts say the press is well within its rights and responsibilities in reporting it.

"When you have the daughter of the president of the United States in an incident in which the police are involved, that's news," Wayne Slater, Austin bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News, said on Good Morning America. "Now, it's not a federal offense; it's not the end of the world. People who read this or watch this on television are smart and understand that it's the kind of thing that many normal teenagers do. But that doesn't make mean it's not news. It is news."

Legally, the first daughters have no right to privacy regarding an incident that allegedly occurred in public, says Jack Doppelt, a lawyer and Northwestern University professor who teaches a course in law and ethics of journalism. And, he agrees, covering the story is close to being a no-brainer journalistically.

"I would think it's not only fair game to be reporting it, but fair game to be asking the president about it, whenever a reporter wants to ask the president," Doppelt says. "If people found out on the street that the president's 19-year-old daughter was in a bar [and the press ignored it] … the majority of reasonable thinking people would come away thinking the press was in cahoots with the president of the United States for some reason of privilege."

Doppelt says, contrary to perception, media standards have not changed over the years in this regard, just the volume.

"There's so many more people and organizations out there dispensing information that, of course, a lot more stuff will get out there than there was 30, 40, 50 or 100 years ago," he says. "There's just more out there."

Some experts disagree. Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, called the coverage of the Bush daughters' troubles another example of a media trend toward "sensationalism," and "a lack of respect for the immaturity of children." He said there should be formal ethical guidelines to prevent coverage of minor infractions by presidential kids.

"A society is defined by not only what it does, but what it refuses to do," he said. "Why would it not be appropriate to give some privilege to the president's children if they're not doing something that's really gruesome? It's like reporting that the president's daughter got a speeding ticket."

Another professor, Charles Figley of Florida State University, who specializes in psychological stress on celebrity, says kids in political families are different, and are used to being raised on a public stage.

"I thought it was next to a miracle how the media handled Chelsea [Clinton]; I thought it was wonderful and laudable," he says. "If I had all the journalists in one room, I'd be begging them to give [presidential kids] peace, but this is journalism in America."

He says the values of the media generally represent the values of society.

"We live in a free country and the media is … a reflection of us," he says.