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December 11th, 2017

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Facebook Journalism: Is It Such Big News?

Debra J. Saunders

By Debra J. Saunders

Published December 4, 2014

Thanksgiving week, GOP House aide Elizabeth Lauten posted an admonishment of first daughters Sasha and Malia Obama on her Facebook page: "I get you're both in those awful teen years, but you're a part of the First Family, try showing a little class," it began. And: "Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar." By Monday, Lauten had resigned as communications director for Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn. Call it her modest contribution to the notion of showing a little class.

Of course Lauten had to go. The president's children, ages 13 and 16, don't deserve to be collateral damage in the snark wars of social media.

That said, did Lauten's post have to be played as such a big story? Credit journalism's breathless rush to umbrage. As The Federalist's Mollie Hemingway noted, The Washington Post ran three Associated Press stories, as well as eight staff blogs and posts, on the Lauten gaffe. A Post foreign-affairs reporter actually investigated Lauten's articles in her student newspaper. That story kindly included a TMZ item about Lauten's being arrested in 2000 on a charge of misdemeanor larceny, later dropped.

Conservatives watch the witch hunt, secure in the belief that liberal bias drove this story. This is how it works: If a story reinforces Beltway stereotypes about Republicans -- if it makes the right look stupid or mean -- it's news. If a story makes R's look both stupid and mean, it's big news.

The day after Lauten resigned, Donny Ray Williams Jr. pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting two women in 2010. At the time, he was an aide for Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., on her Senate disaster recovery subcommittee. The Washington Post reported on the guilty plea, but don't expect the story to get the traction of Lauten's flameout.

News organizations have become obsessed with what public officials say rather than what they do. One reason: It's easier to report on bad Facebook posts than on sexual assaults. You just throw the words up on a screen or a page. There's no ambiguity.

You could argue that Williams' assaults, which make his behavior criminal but not national news, didn't reflect on Landrieu. But given Lauten's quick fall from grace, her Facebook post didn't reflect on the GOP, either.

If bad quotes alone make for good stories, then there should have been more reportage on Jonathan Gruber. He's the MIT economist and Obamacare consultant caught on tape explaining how the Obama administration deliberately misled the public on the Affordable Care Act. The self-satisfied Gruber chalked up his success in fooling the public to "the stupidity of the American voter." The San Francisco Chronicle ran one piece on Gruber's dust-up -- mine.

Whose poor choice of words had more of an effect on American life? Gruber's.

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza rejects the charge that liberal bias led to blanket coverage of l'affaire Lauten. He didn't think the Lauten post was a big story, but it included elements that increased its news value: Trashing innocent teens brings out the media's protective instincts; it was a slow news week; and the story generated Internet traffic. Of course it did; there were so many reports.

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