Debut of 'the Boyfriend' Erodes Media Pact to Respect Privacy
Onslaught of coverage may put end to Chelsea Clinton's anonymity at Stanford.
WASHINGTON — Matthew Pierce is a dead ringer for Hollywood actor Chris O'Donnell - with a crew cut. He's a national merit scholar with a penchant for starched shirts. His athletic build is the product of hours in the pool; his win in the 200-meter butterfly this year helped his team take the NCAA swimming championship.
Before this week, the Stanford University junior was virtually unknown to the nation. Today, he is identified as Chelsea Clinton's boyfriend, a national figure, perhaps better known to many Americans than the president of General Electric or the Senate majority leader.
The unveiling of the "first boyfriend" - some may call it the shredding of his privacy - marks a breach in the Kabuki dance of protocol between the press corps and the White House over the measure of privacy traditionally given to presidential children.
While Chelsea lived in Washington, the media generally respected the Clintons' wishes that her life be kept out of the public eye. When she left for Palo Alto, Calif., there was debate over how long that privacy shield would hold. But a general consensus emerged, from the local Stanford Daily campus paper to the Cable News Network, not to cover Chelsea's college career.
Until now, relative anonymity has been the norm for Chelsea, as one of almost 1,700 freshmen.
"The media's treatment of Chelsea was intended to show there were still limits, that they still afford privacy [to the presidential offspring]," says Robert Lichter of the Center for Media Public Affairs. Now, "It looks like there is nothing left."
On May 3, Mr. Pierce was seen attending church and having lunch with the Clintons during the first visit the president and Mrs. Clinton have had since dropping their daughter off at Stanford last fall.
Pierce confirmed in a telephone interview with the San Jose Mercury News his status as first boyfriend. The next day several national publications and news networks, including ABC news and CNN, disclosed his name and background.
On May 5, Pierce's parents issued their own statements on Chelsea. "We've met her and she is a charming young lady," said Dale Pierce, the father of Matthew Pierce, in the Conroe [Texas] Courier.
The history of White House kids and the attention they draw varies. Caroline and John Kennedy were shielded even in an era when the press afforded presidents more privacy. With the exception of Julie Nixon's marriage to David Eisenhower, Richard Nixon's daughters were mostly kept out of the limelight.
Amy Carter was best known for her tree-house building as a small girl. And later for being arrested in protests over US policy in South Africa while attending Brown University.
But no other first child has lived in this supercharged media climate. When Ms. Carter was in the White House, CNN was just being launched and the era of entertainment as news had not yet emerged full-blown in the mainstream media, note media observers.
Last September, when Chelsea left for Stanford and the media considered how to cover Chelsea, San Diego Union-Tribune reporter John Marelius was quoted as saying that the privacy pact wouldn't last. "The first time she gets drunk at a frat party, somebody will report it.... But this stuff is going to filter out. Who she dates, where she does, what she does."
That prediction now seems accurate.
Officially, Marsha Berry, Mrs. Clinton's press secretary says: "We continue to try to encourage the members of the press to remember these are young people looking to try to go through adulthood with as little disturbance as possible."
CNN spokesman Steve Hayworth says his network has not changed its Chelsea coverage threshold. Once the young man gave an interview and confirmed his identity, it changed the dynamic of the story. "I don't think it marks any departure, it's a single case where an individual came forward. This wasn't pried out of the woodwork," he says. "The overarching desire is to protect the woman's privacy."
"I'm not sure it's a big deal," says Roger Cooper, a media professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. "But it could become a big deal if media and others feel they have to compete, and they start breaking their promises."