Legitimate news ... or tabloid topic?

"Double Trouble," blared the headline of the New York Daily News. "Jenna and Tonic," wailed the New York Post. "Appeal for Privacy After Bush Twins Are Cited for Alcohol," intoned The New York Times.

What a change in headlines from Chelsea Clinton's tenure as first daughter. Journalists and media critics agree fairly uniformly that when the 19-year-old Bush girls stepped over the legal line by allegedly sipping forbidden drinks, they forfeited the special consideration usually given the progeny of the powerful. Even White House spokesman Ari Fleischer didn't argue with the appropriateness of reporting on what's in the public record.

But some critics note a difference between passing along facts and delving in with relish. And, they argue, the coverage given the daughters of the two presidents highlights one of the inherent and seemingly intractable challenges for mainstream media. As commercial entities with corporate bottom lines to meet, they have grown increasingly entertainment driven, blurring traditional journalistic standards.

For some scholars, that's the real motivation for the media's tone in reporting the Bush girls' problems - the difference between their behavior and Ms. Clinton's notwithstanding. To these experts, the justifications about "crossing legal lines" are nothing more than excuses used to exploit the twins' privacy.

"No one wants to dismiss the problem with alcohol abuse, but the media's excuse does seem rather lame," says Charles Figley, a psychologist who studies the children of celebrities. Other critics also warn the media against the slippery slope of "tabloidism" in dealing with a sensitive story like this.

"By definition, you don't know where the boundaries of privacy are anymore," says Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. "The problem with the story about the twins is that it opens the floodgates so other things will get reported now when they ordinarily wouldn't."

Digging up an earlier brush with the law

Indeed, within 24 hours of the Austin police citing the president's daughters for violating Texas' liquor laws, the Houston Chronicle had dug up another incident from 1997 when Jenna Bush encountered the state's Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Because she was a minor then, the commission would not disclose the nature of that incident. But it could make for three brushes with the law, when added to last week's citation for trying to buy liquor with a false ID and her plea last month of no contest for underage drinking.

That, in turn, raises questions about the applicability of Texas' "three strikes and you're out," zero-tolerance law for underage drinking that President Bush himself signed into law in 1997.

"President Bush has a pretty strong profile on being tough on people who violate the law and has made strong statements about his desire to foster integrity and lawful obedience," says Aly Colon, of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute, a media-studies center in St. Petersburg, Fla. "This kind of behavior by his daughter raises questions about how successful someone can be in that regard."

Many journalists agree those are valid follow-through stories - after most tried to give Ms. Bush a break on her first public encounter with the law. But as she learned belatedly, get in legal trouble more than once, and off come the gloves.

Professor Figley believes that's not fair in this case. He says, "Those girls did not break the law in a way that undermines the moral structure of society or that hurts anyone."

As many commentators noted, few US students go through college without drinking an illicit beer. That prompted TV news programs like Fox's "O'Reilly Factor" to ignore Jenna Bush's first publicized court appearance. But last week, when a second citation was issued, the program used it as a news peg to do a story on the nationwide problem with underage drinking.

"I don't think there was a newsroom in the country that covered this story that didn't first examine themselves and their motives," says Amy Sohnen, senior producer of "The O'Reilly Factor." "But people are interested in it; they're talking about it. Many parents have to deal with similar things. Then, of course, there's the story of how the White House is dealing with it."

There is that story, plus the privacy issue, and how other first families have been treated. Indeed, the list of follow-ups could go on long enough to fill a dry news cycle. But is this fair, or exploitation of fair game?

Not your ordinary situation

Mr. Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs ultimately comes down on the side of fair. The reason: that children of major public figures are not ordinary.

"They have advantages and disadvantages," he says. "They get recognition, special treatment, but when things wrong, they're also taken to task. It goes with the territory."

Harvard's Tom Patterson, a professor at Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, agrees. And he argues the rules the media are playing by have not changed since Chelsea Clinton left the White House. The difference, he contends, is the circumstances.

"If Chelsea Clinton had been picked up for trying to get a drink, it would have been a big story, maybe even a bigger one," he says. "They probably would have nailed [President] Clinton for her behavior as well. They would have gotten a double hit."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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