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Making Sense of Criticizing the President's Kids

Dec 15, 2014

It has become an odd Thanksgiving tradition at the White House -- the pardoning of a turkey.

But this year it turned serious after a communications director for a Republican congressman used the occasion to criticize the behavior of Barack Obama's two teenaged daughters.

Elizabeth Lauten, communications director for Tennessee Rep. Stephen Fincher,  scolded 16-year-0ld Malia and 13-year-old Sasha on Facebook because of their fidgeting and their bored looks during the White House event.

Lauten wrote:

"Dear Sasha and Malia: I get you're both in those awful teen years, but you're a part of the First Family, try showing a little class. At least respect the part you play. Then again, your mother and father don't respect their positions very much, or the nation for that matter. So I'm guessing you're coming up a little short in the 'good role model' department."

Lauten went on to tell the President's teens  to "stretch yourself... rise to the occasion" and "act like being in the White House matters to you. Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar. And certainly don't make faces during televised, public events."

Within days after that post Lauten had resigned, having failed to realize she had violated two unwritten rules.

First, the President's kids are traditionally off limits to reporters. And, second, in the world of social media we are all reporters now.

Before a live audience at WUSF studios in Tampa for Leadership Tampa's Media Day December 5th, Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's Sense-Making Project admitted that controversies over criticizing the President's kids are nothing new, "but it usually happens to journalists. You wouldn't expect a communications director to stumble into this."

"What she said was mean-spirited and it was almost guaranteed to get a reaction," McBride explained. " Now there is this thing that happens with a lot of people when they think about their Facebook posts because the whole point is to get a reaction. I'm sure there were a lot of people who agreed with her but I don't think she saw the backlash coming."

The lesson for people who aren't communications director for a congress person is that Facebook posts can have consequences.

"Well the first thing that happens is that people start unfriending you. And you may notice that you're not seeing someone in your feed that you used to see and it might be because you're being a bit of a jerk on Facebook," said McBride. "The other thing that happens is that sometimes your boss or somebody else you work with is going to come talk to you. They're going to say it's not cool to be so mean out there on Facebook, even if you are expressing your opinion. We're under the illusion that our free speech guarantees us employment even when our employer doesn't appreciate our free speech... and it doesn't in most cases."