When Karen Hughes announced last week that she was leaving Washington, journalists went wild. Beyond the usual fascination with high-level White House departures, the story got a huge boost from the reason Hughes gave for her decision. One of the most powerful women ever to work in the White House—the most powerful, some said—was giving it all up for her family.
The story may have set a new world's record for number of media hot buttons simultaneously pressed. The New York Times alone ran five separate pieces: a front-page news story, an editorial, a Maureen Dowd column, a follow-up on the implications for the White House, and, finally, an analysis of the story's embedded social messages: "Suddenly, there was another Rorschach test for a culture striving mightily to come to grips with mothers and work."
Even as reporters everywhere were filing Hughes stories, MTV was airing a new installment of The Osbournes, the reality show that's a national sensation. The show is a glimpse inside the real (yet carefully edited) family life of Ozzy Osbourne, the rock star and Black Sabbath frontman who has been famous for more than 30 years, best known for biting the head off a bat (the one urban legend that turned out to be true). And as with Hughes, media folk have been busily mining the cosmic meaning of the Osbournes and their domestic struggles.
Ozzy and his wife, Sharon, allowed the cable channel to install cameras all over the Beverly Hills mansion that they share with their two teenagers, and to record the family's every move. The conceit is that while the Osbournes appear to be very different from most people—the money, the goth decor, the constant stream of bleeped profanities—they are really just another American family.
On last week's installment, a young houseguest has overstayed his welcome. When he leaves a half-drunk bottle of whiskey in an inappropriate place, Sharon is outraged. So she does what any other mom would do: She takes the bottle into the bathroom, announcing that she's going to urinate in it. Her plan, it seems, is that the guest will unwittingly drink the evil cocktail, punishment for his ... rudeness. Detecting something untoward in this, daughter Kelly protests—the judgmental brat—and follows mom into the bathroom. Muffled yelling ensues and soon the two emerge, Sharon's scheme foiled. Who says kids today have no manners?
The media tell us that what matters about the Hugheses and the Osbournes is what they reveal about all American families. The Times' initial story said that Hughes's decision revealed "a painful truth about the difficulties women face in balancing family and work." USA Today ran a cover story on the Osbournes, which jumped to page 2 under the headline: "TV Audience Can Relate to Problems, Humor, Sadness of Family Life."
But just as interesting is what these families tell us about the media and the strange ways our profession interprets family life. While Hughes may have worked in a rarefied job, her decision to leave that job for her family was indeed reminiscent of the struggle working mothers confront every day. But rather than explore the specific reality of that struggle, the precise family dynamics that led Hughes to her decision, the media gave us a brief, maddeningly opaque glimpse into her world.
The Times story was typical. "Ms. Hughes's friends said that a central reason for her decision was her son, Robert, 15, who was eager to return to public school in Texas after attending St. Albans, the exclusive private school in Washington," it said. A friend was quoted: "'Suddenly he is catapulted into the world of St. Albans, which I would guess for him would be like going to Mars.'" The story continued: "Other friends said Ms. Hughes's husband, Jerry, 63, was also a factor. Mr. Hughes, a lawyer in Austin, has not worked full time in Washington."
Reality-wise, that was about all we got, in The Times and elsewhere. It was all very cryptic and elliptical, especially the part about the husband, who in some stories wasn't even named or given a profession (much as wives were covered in pre-feminist days, and often still are). Leading news outlets then moved quickly to the place where they are most comfortable, that airless realm where experts comment on a trend, vending their own special take.
Thus, USA Today: "Hughes' decision is representative of today's 'watershed word: flexibility,' says Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. 'Women are seeing today that they can take turns doing things.'" Sylvia Hewlett, author of Creating a Life, a book already favored with endless media attention, was everywhere, commenting in the abstract about this very concrete set of human circumstances, while not incidentally hawking her book.
This is not to say journalists were shirking. A lot of reporters dug hard into the Hughes story, a job made all the harder by the fact that Hughes is the queen of minimal disclosure. Nor am I saying we have a right to the kitchen-table facts about the Hughes marriage or the true import of that intriguing phrase "has not worked full-time in Washington." Even White House staffers have a right to their own lives.
But it's a curious thing, to live in a world where a real family making a significant public decision about their lives is instantly transformed into a theoretical construct. And a family of exhibitionists for hire, notable for its extreme wealth and its sideshow lifestyle, is offered up as "reality." Only in the media.