It’s way too easy to self-destruct on social media, as journalists, politicians and celebrities have learned. Now we can add Elizabeth Lauten to the list.
A couple of days ago, almost no one outside the Hill had heard of the GOP congressional staffer. One Facebook post later, she has been universally reviled on social media and in the mainstream media, a poster girl for virtual bad behavior.
No one can defend Lauten’s attack on the president’s daughters. Even some Republicans are saying she showed abysmal judgment. Lauten apologized hours later, saying she had prayed on the matter, but the media quickly brushed that aside when she resigned as communications director for Tennessee Rep. Stephen Fincher.
Why did the story get such traction? Well, the media love easy-to-explain morality tales. It struck a nerve among parents, who wouldn’t want their teenagers subjected to that kind of criticism. And there’s a certain relish in medialand for punishing people who say something dumb.
So Lauten was virtually guaranteed to stir up a furor when she took issue with Sasha and Malia acting bored and distracted at the annual White House turkey pardon—despite the fact that some commentators had pointed out the very same thing, albeit in a light tone.
In case your electricity has been out, Lauten told the Obama girls that “ I get you’re both in those awful teen years, but you’re a part of the First Family, try showing a little class.” And: “Rise to the occasion. Act like being in the White House matters to you. Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar.”
The unwritten rule that the president’s kids are off-limits had been shattered. Social media types pounded Lauten, some even calling her a racist. And the mainstream media weren’t far behind.
There were stories in the Washington Post and New York Times. Stories all over cable, especially MSNBC. Stories on the morning shows and all three network newscasts. And stories on seemingly every website.
What happened was newsworthy, no question. But Elizabeth Lauten was an obscure Hill staffer, not a member of Congress. The piling on has at times seemed out of control.
Contrast the conduct of the big newspapers and networks with what happened when those Jonathan Gruber videos surfaced, showing the ObamaCare architect saying the law had been packaged deceptively and sold based on the public’s stupidity. The “CBS Evening News” took four days to cover the story, the New York Times six days. “NBC Nightly News” and ABC’s “World News Tonight” didn’t find Gruber newsworthy until the following week.
Gruber, like Lauten, was hardly a well-known name, but the administration paid him $400,000 to help design the law.
Or take this Washington Post story on David Krone, Majority Leader Harry Reid’s top aide, saying on the record: “I don’t think that the political team at the White House truly was up to speed and up to par doing what needed to get done.” And: “No member of the Democratic caucus screwed up the rollout of that health-care Web site, yet they paid the price — every one of them.”
Pretty tough stuff for a staffer. The New York Times followed up, but it never became much of a TV story.
As for Lauten, journalists are digging up her past--including a 2006 essay she wrote for her college paper:
“‘Facebook has found yet another way to make sure we know EVERY detail of those around us,’ she wrote, complaining that everyone can now see everyone else’s ‘most recent comments.’ … There’s no point to gossip with girlfriends anymore. … Do you think [Facebook] actually stopped to think about the damper they are going to put on my relationships, as we will have no secrets left to gab about after a few weeks of this?”
The irony was evident, as no one is forced to post anything on Facebook.
But did news outlets really need to tell us that Lauten had been cited for shoplifting when she was in high school?
I’ve covered these controversies about presidential offspring before. In early 1999, Bill and Hillary Clinton put out a statement "we deeply regret and are profoundly saddened by the decision of People magazine to print a cover story featuring our daughter Chelsea.” Although it was an upbeat piece, People’s focus was how Chelsea was holding up during the Monica Lewinsky ordeal.
"For over six years, the media has understood and respected the unique situation facing Chelsea as she grows up in the spotlight focused on her parents. Other than in public situations where she is an integral part of our family, we have been very grateful for the media's restraint in allowing Chelsea the privacy that any young person needs and deserves,” the Clintons said.
A similar flap erupted when Jenna and Barbara Bush were cited by Texas police for underage drinking, harder for the media to ignore because there had been a brush with law enforcement but still blown up into a major story. The People headline was “Double Trouble.”
In Lauten’s case, I’m reminded of Justine Sacco, the PR executive who lost her job after tweeting: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" She was pilloried around the world for her stupidity, as she discovered when she got off the international flight. Today, nobody remembers her name.
On Twitter, where Lauten just took her @DCGOPGirl account private, “Idiot slash bitch” is one of the milder comments directed at her.
RNC spokesman Sean Spicer, while criticizing Lauten’s judgment, calls the media coverage “appalling” and says Democrats who say stupid things don’t receive similar treatment.
But you don’t have to rely on a partisan analysis to conclude that things have spiraled out of control. Lauten made a mistake, she apologized, she lost her job. Why isn’t that enough?
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.