Elizabeth Lauten and the Week the Media Broke

The media's stupid coverage of a Republican staffer's opinion.

NBC News Anchor Brian Williams speaks onstage at 2014 Stand Up For Heroes at Madison Square Garden at Madison Square Garden on November 5, 2014 in New York City.

NBC News Anchor Brian Williams speaks onstage at 2014 Stand Up For Heroes at Madison Square Garden at Madison Square Garden on November 5, 2014 in New York City.

Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

This week is ending with a national chin-stroke contest about The New Republic, and with Rolling Stone spooling out progressively longer editor's notes admitting that its explosive story about rape at the University of Virginia put too much trust in its key source. Let's just not forget how this week began: With a sweaty, embarrassing, round of rock-tossing at now-former House Republican staffer Elizabeth Lauten. As the Thanksgiving news cycles began, Lauten experienced some strong emotions about the way Sasha and Malia Obama acted during the ceremonial presidential pardoning of a turkey. "Your mother and father don’t respect their positions very much," wrote Lauten on Facebook, by way of saying that the girls lacked role models. "Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar."

This was not "news," in the traditional sense of the term. Lauten was one of hundreds of communications staffers on the Hill. Had Lauten e-mailed a reporter with a quote about, say, the need to de-fund the president's new immigration policy through a mandatory spending bill, it's vanishingly unlikely that the quote would have been used. Lauten erred in criticizing the first daughters, insofar as she was a communications pro who did not get the invisible memo that no one is supposed to attack political children (here are exceptions), but her bigger error was doing this during a news lull. She was ripped apart in what is for obvious reasons called "Black Twitter," where resentment about any personal disrespect for the Obamas is intense. She resigned.

And the press covered this like Lauten had stuffed the Obama girls in the trunk of a car and driven into Mexico. As Alana Goodman documented at the Washington Free Beacon, ABC's Good Morning America and NBC's Today Show both gave precious time to the Lauten resignation, and two news trucks parked outside her parents' home. The three main evening news broadcasts, on which time is even more precious, all covered Lauten. The fate of a GOP staffer who blurted about the president's daughters was judged to be important enough to take up four and a half of the 66 minutes the networks were using to describe everything that happened on Earth that day.

The conservative backlash to this was intense, and correct—and it will endure. The Federalist's Mollie Hemingway, who is conservative media criticism what Alton Brown is to recipes, titled her reaction "Dear Media: This Elizabeth Lauten Nonsense Is Why Everybody Hates You." Hemingway connected the four and a half minutes the networks gave to Lautengate to how the "same outlets either dramatically delayed or completely failed to cover Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber saying the healthcare law was passed in 2010 thanks to a 'lack of transparency' and the 'stupidity of American voters.'"

If that reads like a stretch to you, you're probably not a conservative. If it doesn't, you get it: This is just the latest and most ridiculous example of the media judging what was and wasn't worth covering, and putting the "crazy right-winger" story atop the "yes" pile. Lauten had a teenage arrest reported on by The Smoking Gun, and a Washington Post reporter digging through her (not terribly revealing) college newspaper columns to explain where she came from. School shooters might expect their college writings to be plumbed for insights. But Hill staffers? 

Media malpractice like this has consequences. Lauten might have lost her job anyway; staffers have been fired for less in the Age of Twitter. Conservatives, like most people in politics, remember their martyrs. The Lauten story can and will be cited when Republicans want to explain why they don't trust the press to treat them fairly. That's what Reince Priebus's RNC is doing right now—has been doing, actually—in putting together rules that will limit the number of presidential primary debates and devolve as much power as possible from media moderators. I've been in ballrooms where Priebus pledges to prevent Chris Matthews from ever hosting a debate again, and the Republicans cheer.

More recently, I was sitting in a diner in Plaquemine, La., waiting for an interview. It was Monday, and the food came as the evening news came back from commercial. NBC News started in on the Lauten story.

"It is one of the few rules that the news media and the mob usually adhere to," said Brian Williams. "Leave children out of the fight."

The waiter at my table rolled his eyes. "This is the news?" he asked. "They want you to care about this so you don't see what's really going on."

Some people are always going to think that. It'd be smart to choose stories, and targets, and reputation-destruction news items, so as not to validate it.

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