Over the past few weeks, the “Trending” bar of Twitter has included the names of Trump admin children. Claudia Conway (Kellyanne Conway’s daughter) has been outspoken about her anti-Trump views on TikTok and Twitter, and fans of the #SaveBarron trend allege that Trump’s youngest son is secretly liberal and miserable in the White House.
While it’s certainly juicy stuff, the subjects involved are minors, which makes coverage more complicated from a journalistic ethics perspective. CNN’s Kate Bennett has extensively covered the First Family. We chatted with her about the ethics of covering these political kids in the era of social media.
There’s generally been an unspoken rule among the DC press that they don’t cover the children of the political elite, as these kids didn’t have a choice about being thrust into the spotlight. Do you abide by that rule?
I’m pretty strict about this; I don’t cover children of the political elite if they’re minors. The exception might be when the White House confirms the school that Barron Trump is going to, for example. When it becomes public knowledge that’s been approved by the White House, which means it’s been approved by the President or First Lady, then it becomes okay to report on. But otherwise, like you said, these are children, and they didn’t pick the profession that their parents take, they didn’t ask to move into a fishbowl, they didn’t have a grown-up choice to be front and center and in the spotlight. I’m not alone in following this rule, which is pretty hard and fast. I think any reputable media outlet would agree with me.
But then you get something like Kellyanne Conway’s daughter, Claudia, who’s publicly taken to TikTok and Twitter to denounce her mother’s boss and administration. If she’s putting those things out there on the modern equivalent of standing on a soapbox in the public square, does that become fair game?
No. I stick to my rule. It’s still a [teenager]; they’re children. Kids today have so many outlets with social media, and so many ways to express themselves, [but] they don’t have fully formed frontal cortexes. Thinking about things like future jobs, or future relationships, or schools and academics, it’s our responsibility as adult journalists to have the forethought that [these kids] might not have as minors. For me, that’s always been paramount. It doesn’t excuse the moral code. It’s still a child, it’s still a minor.
Even if something blows up on Twitter? I understand wanting to protect kids and their online privacy, but if something’s viral and millions of eyeballs have already seen it, does that change your judgment on coverage?
Not really. We have different standards than some other outlets, but for CNN [that unwritten rule] very much still applies. I always like to take a step back and put the shoe on the other foot. Were this a different White House, were this a different political party, would it be a different story playing out? [Regardless of] whether other people have found it and are writing or talking about it or getting a million clicks on their website about it, for me it’s still a minor making a decision. Unless their parents called me up and said, “we’d like to speak on behalf of our daughter and address her activities on social media,” I don’t think I would ever be comfortable with it.
I’m curious about how you’ve seen political elite parents struggling to monitor their kids’ social media. I have a teenage sister and I know it’s difficult for my mom to keep track of all of her accounts because she’s far less comfortable with the digital landscape.
Yeah, I mean I have a 15-year-old, so I know exactly what it’s like. It’s an extra job we have to do throughout the day, to make sure those accounts are private and the content’s okay. From covering Melania Trump and her relationship with Barron Trump, I think the best thing that she’s done in the White House is make us forget that there’s a child that lives there. I say that very sincerely. Sometimes I’ll be waiting in a press van to leave to leave the White House, and I’ll look over and see the soccer net in the back of the South Lawn of the White House. I’ll think, “What? Oh, right, Barron.” I think that’s a testament to the kind of life in the public eye she wants to give him.[Ensuring that protection online] falls to the parents and it becomes a layer of parenting that’s way more complex when you’re in the public eye or dealing with the children of politicians. It’s not easy [even] for me as the parent of a regular teenager. It involves a certain amount of discipline; you have to take the time at the end of the day to go through things and talk about them. “Are you sure you want to say that? That TikTok song might be really cool but it has some words in it that aren’t great.” Barron is 14, and we all know the draw of social media, so I think it’s a testament [to her parenting] that we don’t hear anything about his activity.
Except now we have #SaveBarron trending on social media, where people are claiming that he’s a liberal kid trapped in the Trump household after rumors circulated about him being an avid gamer and K-pop fan. Do you think there’s any credibility to that?
It’s hard to get inside the mind of anyone, and especially a teenage boy. But from covering the First Lady I know that her parenting is very hands on, and I don’t think she would cover up any feelings [that Barron might have.] I mean, the First Lady herself sometimes likes to tweet things that are in opposition to the administration. It’s not a ruling with an iron fist kind of household.
I think memes have a mind have their own, and [people love] anything that’s a curiosity. People won’t know some of these politicians have children, much less teenagers on social media, so it becomes this sort of voyeurism into politicians’ private lives. But it’s up to us as the media and the adult journalists in the room to not light the match.
So do you think this is less of an anomaly than we think it is? Is there a quiet, widespread rebellion among the teenage kids of the Trump administration?
It’s hard to say. I mean, I was a kid in the ’80s, and I remember the headlines that were made from from Ronald Reagan’s children. They disagreed with their dad’s policies and became political activists for many left leaning causes, [and that led to] some pearl clutching. I think there’s a healthy amount of rebellion in any in any family, especially with teenagers, and I would imagine that having parents in the political spotlight and having to adhere to a constituency and an election must create all kinds of interesting family dinner table conversations.
The Trump family is interesting thing to look at; the three eldest children have fallen right in line with their father, and there seems to be such a strong alignment there. And then you have Tiffany, who just graduated law school and is thinking about going into the family business, and Barron who we just don’t know about yet. There’s this spectrum running from “we want to be just like Dad,” to a 14-year-old who is still forming his opinions.