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Posted by on Jul 8, 2007 in Media, Politics, Society | 25 comments

Smelly Journalism Dept: Fred Thompson’s Wife


To those of you who roll your eyes and groan when you hear people go on and on about the biased news media that injects its personal opinions into news stories and peppers them with assumptions that the writer more than “critics say” seems to hold, roll your eyes no longer.

The New York Times has a piece that makes you conclude: somewhere at that (once stellar) newspaper, an editor was asleep at the switch:

AS the election of 2008 approaches with its cast of contenders who bring unprecedented diversity to the quest for the White House, the voting public has been called on to ponder several questions: Is America ready for a woman to be president? What about a black man? A Mormon?

Now, with the possible candidacy of Fred D. Thompson, the grandfatherly actor and former Republican senator from Tennessee, whose second wife is almost a quarter-century his junior, comes a less palatable inquiry that is spurring debate in Internet chat rooms, on cable television and on talk radio: Is America ready for a president with a trophy wife?

So the writer of the piece knows for A FACT that when Thompson married his present wife, she was picked as a “trophy?” There was no love involved? No relationship? No friendship? She didn’t share some of his values and dreams?

She KNOWS that he just simply pointed to her and said: “TROPHY! I’ve GOT to have HER to show people! See this younger woman! Stand up, honey! See this guys? OK, honey, you can sit down now!” MORE:

The question may seem sexist, even crass, but serious people — as well as Mr. Thompson’s supporters — have been wrestling with the public reaction to Jeri Kehn Thompson, whose youthfulness, permanent tan and bleached blond hair present a contrast to the 64-year-old man who hopes to win the hearts of the conservative core of the Republican party. Will the so-called values voters accept this union?

You can read more of this piece — and this article IS indeed a piece – yourself. We apologize for even linking to it.

But it’s an incredible example of a manufactured story that should be shown by journalism professors to students about lazy, assumption-filled journalism. If it had not appeared in the New York Times, it would not be an issue — and do you want to BET it won’t be a factor in the campaign?

The lead of this story about her being a 40-year old “trophy wife” is filled with such an insulting assumption that you wonder how it got into the newspaper, if it has editors who are doing their jobs and care about the Times’ once-legendary journalistic standards.

But then journalistic standards are being relaxed in these days of competition from tabloids, talk radio, blogs (where anything goes and goes quickly), Oprah — and a general relaxation and degradation of what Americans allow politicians and at times the press to inject into elections as “issues.”

We were getting sewage; now we’re getting sewage and sludge.

Nope. We’re not campaigning for Fred Thompson for President (or another candidate) on this site (we can just see the comments coming now about how we MUST be getting checks from Karl Rove). Thompson will get the same coverage on this site as any other candidate — there will be nice and not nice conclusions drawn about him, links to articles that like him and don’t like him.

But this Times story has a basic assumption that neither the writer or the editor could prove — one that should have been edited out from the lead of the story.

But if that had happened, then the story wouldn’t have GRABBED THE READER. And that’s what’s more important than showing accuracy and fairness, isn’t it?

UPDATE: Be sure to read Ed Morrissey (in full) who also notices this story, looks at it journalistically then adds:

Is this the level to which the New York Times will stoop for the rest of the political campaign? All it indicates to me is that Pinch Sulzberger and his staff seem very worried about a Thompson campaign, so worried that they have already started attacking Fred’s family rather than discuss his policy stands, contained in essays that he has published for months at Townhall and ABC. The caliber of these attacks show the quality of the opposition to Fred, and also give Fred some indirect credibility, as his opponents don’t appear to have confidence that they can beat him on the issues.

As we suggested above: this story would NEVER have made it into the Times 20, 10 or even 5 years ago.

COMING NEXT AT THE TIMES: The pain Fred Thompson’s dog suffered when he had him neutered (and Thompson picked a pedigree to impress voters..)

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Copyright 2007 The Moderate Voice
  • The only time a candidates spouse should come up as an issue is if that candidate is supporting certain principles and their marriage runs counter to those principles.

    The reason this story sells, and there are a lot of people using the ‘trophy wife’ label, is because sex sells. Talking about how young his wife and making it an issue is no better than porn for those making it an issue.

  • On the button–the Times story is tacky in the extreme, but only part of a process I’ve always called “media payback,” wherein journalists fall in love with a celebrity and then fallout. It started back in the 1960s with the Kennedys and could be seen most recently in the reversal on John McCain. With other stories about his toadying to Nixon during the Watergate hearings and lobbying for a pro-abortion group, it’s only beginning for Thompson:

  • George Sorwell

    This isn’t much different from all the so-called journalism about John Edwards’ haircut.

  • Laura

    She’s not so hot as to be considered a “trophy wife”.

  • kritter

    I agree with George Sorwell. It also reminds me of a piece they did 6 months ago speculating on how many nights Bill Clinton spent at home.

    I’d rather read about Thompson’s reasons for running in the first place, or look at the hypocrisy of him running as a Washington outsider, after spending his career as a DC lobbyist and later a US Senator.

  • mikeVA

    This particular washingtonian doesn’t help the news process.

    Most people agree. His talks are full of empty rhetoric. He is unprepared to run a campaign. So he has this void of information to fill. And news sources are more than happy to sell with whatever they got.

    His newest wife can help the image. I’ve never heard her speak. She’ll have to communicate as First Lady.

    Until she proves otherwise, she leaves the bimbo impression especially since all we have are photos of her implants popping-out.

    Lastly, we don’t have the story of their relationship.

    It sounds flaky. He was messin’ with her friend. Then he was messing with her and he got her pregnant.

  • I don’t often disagree with you Joe but I think you’re dead wrong on this. In full disclosure, I first floated this question on the “trophy wife” about six weeks ago at the Newshoggers and it generated a firestorm of criticism.

    I think that the first problem is that people don’t define it properly. Its simplest meaning is a wife significantly younger than the husband. The implications of gold digger and bimboism were added I believe largely as a result of the many men who react to such wives, with tongues hanging and drool over how “they would like to get a piece of THAT.” Just because she’s a trophy, as in a prize catch for a spouse, shouldn’t imply that there is no love or compatibility.

    I also think it’s a legitimate question politically, in terms of the impact on a campaign. In an age where we’ve seen elections rise and fall on such “issues” as sweaters, haircuts and false allegations about claims of inventing the internet, it’s likely to have an effect.

    Furthermore, although I think you’re right that this wouldn’t have been an issue 20 years ago, when First Ladies did little but redecorate the White House and hold tea parties, in later administrations First Ladies have embraced some political cause or another and have been visible in general on their own. Certainly Laura has made state visits without George. Thus the First Lady becomes the face of America just as much as the President does. It’s not unreasonable to ponder on how Jeri would be received in the public eye, both at home and abroad.

    As for it being unfair to ask the question because she hasn’t appeared publicly, it’s been reported that she is very active behind the scenes in this campaign and furthermore she is a seasoned GOP operative having done extensive oppo work for the party in 04. I’d say that’s relevant number one and number two, when you decide to run for president, it’s a tacit agreement to step into the fishbowl and spouses are not immune. In today’s world, a spouse is viewed as a partner in a marriage, not mere chattel.

    I’m not suggesting a spouse should be the sole issue on which to pick a president but it’s certainly a factor and despite wide protestations to the contrary, this is an issue people are interested in. Six weeks later, “Jeri Thompson trophy wife” is still generating significant and ongoing google traffic on both Newshoggers and The Impolitic on a daily basis.

    Perhaps one can chalk that up to simple curiousity or maybe it’s just guys looking for photos of her in that low cut gown, but nonetheless it’s clearly a topic of great interest within the electorate. I don’t think that’s a necessarily a good thing, but it’s real and can’t be discounted just because it’s tacky.

  • Mike knows way more of the story than I do. That last bit does seem to hint at a character issue. Still, and no doubt, the MSM is so pathetic, I hope its credibility sinks so low (can it really go lower?) that people simply stop buying it.

  • kritter

    I’m wondering if the shrinking market for hard news is what’s driving the trend towards sensationalism and Hollywood gossip style coverage on cable and in the written press. Its true that no reputable publication would have made an issue out of Thompson’s “trophy wife”, Edwards “400$ haircut scandal”, or Mitt’s 1983 mishap with Seamus Romney, twenty years ago.

    But the NYT’s may be adapting to the tabloid times we live in to attract readership away from the scummy NY Post, or the cable networks.
    In general, journalistic standards on all of the media is deteriorating, and we now have the prospect of Rupert Murdoch’s stewardship of the august Wall Street Journal to look forward to.

    I’m glad I was around for Walter Cronkite, David Habersham and David Brinkley.

  • Davebo

    How about if we drop the trophy wife line and simply ask the question, is the GOP ready to nominate a man who’s wife is four years younger than his daughter?

    It’s essentially the same question just phrased differently. And I think it’s a perfectly legitimate question.

  • I agree that it is a lazy story (especially since it was covered in the Blogosphere over a month ago), but we also have to note that it was in the Style section–not the front page, not the national section, but the Style section.

    Second, I do think that there is some legitimacy to the question of whether Thompson’s private life (and the choices he has made) will affect primary voters–as I argued here.

  • I think Libby nailed it.

    People on the cable and tabloid side have been asking this for weeks, so the MSM picks up on it.

    If you think it’s degenerate or disgusting, don’t link to it. But, since you do, de facto, it’s not really ALL that bad.

    What was far more troublesome to me, in the piece, was this bit of urban legend: ‘THE term “trophy wife” was coined by Fortune magazine in 1989 and immediately entered the language. Although it often has a pejorative spin, the term originally meant the second (or third) wife of a corporate titan, who was younger, beautiful and — equally important — accomplished in her own right, which describes Mrs. Thompson.’

    Sorry, but I recall the term being bandied about by my dad and his pals in the 60s- decades before this claim.

  • tomjfrombfflo

    Some of the voices who maintain that Thompson is being attacked because he is a strong candidate call Edwards “The Breck Girl” and opponents of the Iraq War “traitors”.

    That said, the NY Times story is dumb. I think a reasonable case can, and is, being made that Thompson is fake and has been for a long time. From his ambivalent involvement with the Watergate Hearings to his Lobbying for whoever had the money to his rented pick-up truck, he is an example of someone who creates himself as he goes along.

    That hardly make him unique, alas, but it hardly makes him a fresh breeze from Outside the Beltway, either. Hollywood and K Street are not shy corners from which reluctant heroes are coaxed into public life.

    P. S. Thank God for Moderate Voice and other places where people who don’t bleed either red or blue can recover some sanity.

  • In the now fairly-distant past:

    “All the News That’s Fit To Print”


    “All the News That Fits*, We Print”

    * Fits the NYT’s political/ideological biases.

  • Rudi

    LOL His wife is younger than his daughter. I wonder what the daughter and “wife” talk about and how they address each other?While the story may be tacky, they did the same thing with speculation into the Clinton marriage. I guess all reporters(and bloggers) are faithful and in “mature” relationships!! What’s the latest word on the Aruba/missing girl, another hard news story.

  • kritter

    I agree with Rudi. While it is undoubtedly low-brow, its no more outrageous than the story calculating how many nights Bill Clinton stayed with Hillary or the 400$ haircut scandal.

    Mrs. Thompson looks more than 25 years younger than Fred, and that is bound to raise a few eyebrows in DC circles.

  • I’m sorry, but Fred Thompson and his 21 yr. old wife are absolutely pathetic. All this from a man who preaches conservative family values, while he walks around with a playboy model. Please! By the way, isn’t this wife number 3?

  • phil_in_ny,

    To me age doesn’t matter. If people decide they want to get hitched, that is their decision and they shouldn’t be condemned or questioned for it. I’ve heard that she married him for money (etc.), and that should be the only reason she should be criticized, but I haven’t seen any proof for that position, so until I do, no reason to ridicule or question her.

    On the other hand if this is his third marriage and he does try to toe the conservative Christian moral values line, then that is something that is open to debate, he should be questioned on and criticized for his blatant hypocrisy. But remember, it is his blatant hypocrisy, not hers. Also, may I mention that marrying someone younger is not against conservative values, and in fact is likely the embodiment of them if one considers the history of arranged marriages in this country between the wealthy.

  • Elrod

    Fred Thompson is going to get nailed on a lot more issues than his wife’s age compared to him. This is a silly story, especially compared to more substantive stories coming from other sources on his lobbying and Watergate career. Here in Tennessee, the Republicans are rallying to him because he’s the home boy, but non-Republicans here (the state is pretty evenly divided between Independents, Democrats and Republicans, believe it or not) are pretty unimpressed with him. He won in a huge GOP year in 1994 with his infamous red pickup truck ad. And then he cruised to re-election in 1996 against light opposition.

  • AustinRoth

    And people here have wondered why I don’t bother to try and write with substance anymore, just mainly trite observations.

    Why bother? The level of discourse at all levels these days is abysmal. Why take any of it seriously?

  • AustinRoth

    Oh, and given the snarkiness of the national press towards women in the spotlight, how long until the /trphy bride’ tag is dropped, and the snipes at her weight start?

    After all, she is no size 2, and that is just not allowed in certain circles of the press.

  • Pug

    How about if we drop the trophy wife line and simply ask the question, is the GOP ready to nominate a man who’s wife is four years younger than his daughter?

    Let’s see, my daughter is 19. Nineteen minus four is…uh oh.

    And were you aware of what John Edwards paid for a couple of his haircuts? I’m sure Chris Matthews will be back on that one tomorrow night. It’s a hell of a story.

  • The only time a candidates spouse should come up as an issue is if that candidate is supporting certain principles and their marriage runs counter to those principles.

    I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

    “Live and let live,” I say. Let people marry whoever they want (provided that the marriage is consensual. It might not be my cup of tea, but I see no reason to inject someone’s marriage into a political debate.

    The ONE exception to that is in the case Ashen Shard lists above–hypocrisy. If a politician makes a career as being a moralist campaigning on “family values” and then ends up divorcing his wife (or her husband), then I think bring the divorce up is fair game because it demonstrates what a hypocrite that politician is.

    But otherwise, why not just leave family members out of politics.

    The “trophy wife” comment in the New York Times was a low blow.

    Also, I’m left completely unconvinced by Libby’s comment above:

    I also think it’s a legitimate question politically, in terms of the impact on a campaign. In an age where we’ve seen elections rise and fall on such “issues” as sweaters, haircuts and false allegations about claims of inventing the internet, it’s likely to have an effect.


    That fact that such trifling things as sweaters, haircuts, and claims about inventing the internet have played a large role in campaigns is a BAD thing, right? We should we sink to the lowest common denominator and respond with equally trifling things?

  • In that last comment, I meant to write:

    Should we sink to the lowest common denominator and respond with equall trifling things?

    Yes, it’s a leading question.

  • kimrit

    It is a petty story. What we should be concerned with is how many people plan to vote for Thompson based on Arthur Branch, the tough prosecutor he plays on Law and Order, instead of the mediocre politician that he played in Washington. The fact that he left because he did not like the long hours that he had to work in the Senate (not a workaholic’s schedule by any means) tells me that he may lack the energy to lead the country out of Iraq and towards energy independence, or to confront global warming, as necessary.

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