• 73°

Margaret Sullivan: Actually, Melania, your disappearance is legitimate news

Writer

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.

In the endless soap opera that is TrumpWorld, the springtime absence of the first lady apparently is getting its very own mini-episode.

Melania Trump announced her bizarrely named “BeBest” campaign to protect children from bullying in early May — and then almost immediately dropped out of sight.

She was hospitalized for five days without prior public notice, and until a private appearance Monday night with Gold Star parents, she hadn’t been sighted since — an absence of almost four weeks.

And she still hasn’t been seen publicly, nor is she scheduled to accompany President Donald Trump on two international trips, including to this week’s G-7 summit in Quebec.

As her absence grew longer, weird theories circulated on social media, without a shred of evidence. The #whereismelania hashtag was born.

And late-night comic Stephen Colbert quipped, “Well I’m not surprised — it took that Shawshank guy years to tunnel out.”

When reporters initially inquired after her whereabouts, a curious-sounding tweet — presidentially dictated? — responded from the @FLOTUS Twitter account. It accused the news media of “working overtime,” a favorite Trumpian phrase, to speculate about what she was doing.

And on Monday, the first lady’s communications office pushed back harder: “Mrs. Trump has always been a strong and independent woman who puts her family, and certainly her health, above all else, and that won’t change over a rabid press corps. She’s confident in what she is doing and in her role, and knows the rest is just speculation and nonsense.”

Is Melania Trump’s absence a reasonable cause of media inquiry? You bet it is.

Is the press corps “rabid,” as charged? Well, sometimes — but not in this case.

Presidential children have some rights to privacy, and reporters have properly left 12-year-old Barron Trump alone.

But the first lady?

She’s a public figure, whose staff and security cost taxpayers millions of dollars a year. When she announces her pro-kids campaign or wears a statement white chapeau or attends a state dinner, news coverage is expected.

It comes with the territory, whether that territory is something she sought or not.

And so, too, when she does something highly unusual, such as drop off the scene altogether.

“What Mrs. Trump has executed here seems unprecedented,” Katherine Jellison, a professor at Ohio University who studies first ladies, told Katie Rogers of the New York Times. “I don’t know what we want to call this period where she hasn’t been in view. Respite from the role of first lady? Vacation from first lady? Medical recovery period?”

Whatever it is, it’s odd and worthy of notice.

The pro-Trump media is, of course, playing its expected role in defending the first lady’s privacy.

On Fox News Channel’s “The Five,” Greg Gutfeld took a shot at CNN’s Brian Stelter, mocking him as “the nation’s hall monitor” for devoting a segment of his “Reliable Sources” show to her absence.

Granted, it’s largely the gossip value — not any crucial public interest — of the Melania Trump story that makes up most of its appeal. And granted, the first lady deserves a measure of privacy: less than her son, more than her husband.

And, also granted: This is happening at a time when the priorities of the mainstream media are reasonably being criticized.

Scant attention was paid, for example, to new reports about the thousands of deaths caused by Hurricane Maria last year in Puerto Rico, far more than the official government count.

As James Downie aptly wrote in The Washington Post: “On the major Sunday talk shows — the purest distillation of what the media and political establishments consider worth discussing — not once was Puerto Rico mentioned. That is a disgrace.”

And, day after day, the journalistic obsession with special counsel Robert Mueller III’s Russia investigation probably far outstrips the public’s level of interest.

Still, beyond the talk value of the Melania Trump story, there is a reason to care. And a reason to pay heed.

It’s this: The Trump administration specializes in knocking down well-established norms of how the government and the public — and the media — behave toward one another. These norms are part of the glue of a functioning democracy.

It’s important for the news media to report on how those norms are eroding, to keep track of the changes, whether radical or superficial.

The unprecedented weeks-long absence of the first lady may not rank particularly high in that order, but it’s still worthy of notice.

So, Melania, we’ll be looking for you. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist

Comments

Education

RSS budgeting for tens of millions in federal COVID-19 relief funding

East Spencer

‘Back in full swing’ for the spring: East Spencer community gathers for food, fun and fellowship at Spring Fest

Local

Rowan native Lingle among those honored with NC Military Veterans Hall of Fame induction

Business

Former pro baseball player, Tar Heel standout Russ Adams finds new career with Trident Insured

Education

Profoundly gifted: Salisbury boy finishing high school, associates degree at 12

Local

Cheerwine Festival will stick to Main Street, stay away from new park in September

Lifestyle

Celebrating Rowan County’s early cabinetmakers

Education

Service Above Self announces youth challenge winners

Business

Economic Development Commission creates search tool for people seeking Rowan County jobs

Columns

Amy-Lynn Albertson: Arts and Ag Farm Tour set for June 5

High School

High school baseball: Mustangs top Falcons on strength of hurlers

Business

Biz Roundup: Application process now open for Rowan Chamber’s 29th Leadership Rowan class

Sports

Keith Mitchell leads McIlroy, Woodland by 2 at Quail Hollow

Nation/World

States scale back vaccine orders as interest in shots wanes

Nation/World

Major US pipeline halts operations after ransomware attack

News

NC budget dance slowed as GOP leaders differ on bottom line

News

Judge limits footage that family can see of deputy shooting

Coronavirus

People receiving first dose of COVID-19 vaccine grows by less than 1%

Education

Rowan-Salisbury Schools brings Skills Rowan competition back to its roots

Business

Weak jobs report spurs questions about big fed spending

News

Judge limits footage that family can see of deputy shooting in Elizabeth City

Sports

Woodland, two others share lead; Mickelson plays much worse but will still be around for weekend at Quail Hollow

Business

Former NHL player to open mobster themed bar in Raleigh

Nation/World

California population declines for first time