Tuesday, September 29, 2009



Tue Sep 29, 2009

Last week Barack and Michelle Obama hosted a reception for visiting foreign dignitaries at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Over the course of the evening, the president, whose "amazingly consistent" smile created a viral video, and first lady posed for over 130 photographs with their guests, all of which were later posted to the State Department's Flickr page.

This caused a problem: Included was a shot of the Obamas posing with Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, his wife Sonsoles Espinosa, and two daughters, Laura, 16, and Alba, 13, who've never had photographs of themselves published previously in print or online due to a Spanish law prohibiting the media from doing so. The photo of Zapatero and his family with the Obamas was quickly removed from Flickr at the request of the Spanish government but still lurks online (in the shot seen here their faces are blurred). The flap is adding concerns on the issue of the privacy of world leaders' children in the digital age.

Writing on The Daily Beast today, Republican Senator John McCain's daughter Meghan expressed sympathy for the girls, who've been labeled as "goth" in the photo. She says she's also bewildered by the Spanish government's reaction:

I want to start out by saying I can't believe there is a country that exists where the media protects children of public figures, let alone the prime minister's daughters. It is literally hard for me to fathom that there is a place that respects the privacy of underage children of politicians and diplomats. The second part of this that makes me very sad is that these two girls are enduring a sort of baptism by fire with the media scrutiny that surrounds their family portrait with the Obamas. Not only are they not used to being photographed, but their first foray into being photographed and criticized is on a very public scale with the most famous and powerful politicians in the entire world.

In addition to successfully lobbying the State Department to remove the photo, the Spanish government went so far as to have the state-owned Spanish news agency EFE refrain from distributing it.

The plethora of ridicule faced by Prime Minister Zapatero's children is a reminder of the harsh scrutiny children of world leaders often face over their appearance. Here in the U.S., Chelsea Clinton, who was so closely protected that Time Magazine referred to her as "the Garbo of presidential children," was dealt a harsh review by conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh during her father's presidency, in addition to being called "ugly" in an off-color joke told by none other than Meghan McCain's father at a Republican fundraiser in 1998. The Bush twins Jenna and Barbara were famously ridiculed for - and photographed - partying with friends.

The Spanish government's policy toward Zapatero's children contrasts with the tricky relationship between the U.S. media and first daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 8, who have been largely sheltered from the press but certainly haven't been invisible. Back in June, photographers were allowed to photograph the president walking to get ice cream with his girls on Father's Day weekend, not long after the White House requested that the press not publish a photo of Obama waving to Sasha as she stood on one of the White House balconies. Meanwhile, the official White House Flickr page contains numerous "behind the scenes" pictures of the Obama children.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs recently said that the administration would permit press access to the Obama children when they are part of "official events with the president and first lady," but added that "there should be a wide berth of privacy extended to the family" when they're alone or doing something as a family. He added that the White House's Flickr photos of the children exist to control the paparazzi market for pictures of the Obama children, the youngest to occupy the White House since John and Caroline Kennedy, who were also fiercely guarded.

Sheltering their children is forcing modern world leaders to deal with challenges most of their predecessors never had to contend with: digital technology and the Internet. The influx of digital cameras and cell phones and the rise of social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, etc. make it easy for anyone to take a photograph and distribute it widely in a matter of minutes, making it virtually impossible for even the highest levels of government to keep the genie in the bottle.

-- Brett Michael Dykes is a contributor to the Yahoo! News Blog.