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Monday, August 06, 2007

Mainstream media flunks basic fact-checking by ignoring No. 2 & 3 Google returns on whether Jeri Kehn Thompson is or isn't an attorney

Entitled "The Truth About Jeri Thompson," this post today by WaPo staffer Alec MacGillis on the newspaper's campaign blog, "The Trail," follows up on a Sunday, August 5th front-page news article from MacGillis and his colleague John Solomon that was entitled "The Rise Of Jeri Thompson." I don't know if the text of MacGillis blog post will also be in tomorrow's print edition or not, but as I write this, the breathlessly provocative title is prominently featured on the main WaPo web page. In it, MacGillis claims (boldface mine):

It is a measure of how rapid Jeri Kehn Thompson's rise to prominence has been that there has been widespread confusion about a basic fact of her background: whether or not she is a lawyer.

Several major news organizations — including USA Today, the Associated Press, Chicago Tribune, and The [Washington] Post — have in recent months referred to Jeri Thompson as both a political consultant and lawyer in articles about Fred Thompson's nascent presidential campaign, in which his wife has taken a leading role.

And supporters of the Thompsons have repeatedly invoked Jeri Thompson's status as an attorney to challenge insinuations that the 40-year-old mother of two is a mere "trophy wife" for the 64-year-old actor and former Tennessee senator. On Fox News last week, host Chris Wallace quoted a letter from a viewer attacking NPR's Juan Williams for having previously used the 'tw' phrase in reference to Thompson: "You chauvinist pig. Jeri Thompson is an intelligent, accomplished woman. She is a lawyer. And she has worked in the public policy arena." Added conservative blogger Ed Morrissey last month: "Anyone with access to Google knows that Mrs. Thompson worked as an attorney and media consultant in DC."

Well, presumptuous as it may be to challenge the holy writ that is Google, the hard fact is that Jeri Thompson is not a lawyer. There is no trace in public records of Thompson holding a license to practice law in D.C. or any of the states in which she has resided. And today, campaign spokeswoman Linda Rozett said conclusively, "Jeri Thompson does not have a law degree."

Despite the reference to the WaPo itself as having made this error "in recent months," Solomon and MacGillis' August 5th story made no assertion one way or the other about whether Mrs. Thompson is or isn't an attorney; perhaps they were still waiting to hear back from Ms. Rozett, and decided to finesse the question in order to make the Sunday front page. And notably missing from MacGillis' blog post is any claim that either Sen. Fred Thompson, Jeri Thompson, or the Thompson campaign has ever misrepresented her non-lawyer status. In another WaPo blog post today, Mary Ann Akers asserts that the Thompson proto-campaign "hasn't done itself any favors by being so evasive when it comes to questions about Mrs. Thompson." Nevertheless: The only even moderately interesting issue here is whether those writing about Mrs. Thompson, whether in the blogosphere or the mainstream media, ought to have figured out sooner whether she is or isn't an attorney.


As is unfortunately but typically sloppy for posts in many mainstream media newspaper "blogs," MacGillis didn't bother to link to either the WaPo's own previous error (which presumably occurred before the August 5th news article), nor to any of the other MSM errors, nor to the July 8th post from Captain's Quarters from which he included a direct quote from Ed Morrissey, but here's the link to Captain Ed's referenced post. (And here's one to Ed's post about MacGillis and Solomon's August 5th front-page article.) It would be very interesting to know, however, whether MacGillis or Solomon had found Ed's July 8th post before they wrote their August 5th news article. If they had, and if they'd actually bothered to even skim its comments, they surely would have found my comment on that post (posted "July 11, 2007 10:32 PM," and currently fairly prominent as the very last comment to that post), the first paragraph of which reads:

Ed, here's a small correction of no great weight: In response to my emailed inquiry as part of my follow-up to a couple of posts I've written about Jeri Thompson (here and here), a trusted source close to the Thompson organization (one whom I believe you'd also have grounds to trust) confirmed for me that although she was employed as a political and media consultant in the Washington office of the Verner Liipfert law firm (which merged into DLA Piper in 2002), she is not, by training, an attorney. Verner Liipfert employed a number of other high-profile non-lawyers for the services it offered in addition to legal representation, including, for example, the late former Texas governor Ann Richards.

Now, how had I come to post that comment in mid-July?

I'm not a high-powered, well-connected Washington, D.C. political reporter, nor even a very high-powered political blogger. But some time after writing my first post about Mrs. Thompson on June 4th — about the time that the first round of nasty "trophy wife" remarks started circulating in the blogosphere and the mainstream media — I had become curious about whether Mrs. Thompson was or wasn't a lawyer. In my second post about her (on June 24th), I ended with a long parenthetical note:

(A last comment: It's by no means crucial to Ms. Kehn's own list of accomplishments, but I'm not certain that she is in fact an attorney, as has been reported — or quite possibly simply assumed — at various places around the net. The Nashville Post story that I quoted earlier, for example, said that she "was an attorney and political media consultant at the once-powerful Washington [law] firm of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, and McPherson and Hand ... [b]efore that firm merged with DLA Piper in 2002." But Verner, Liipfert offered services besides legal advice, and it hired a fair number of politically savvy and well-connected non-lawyers, among them a famous former Governor of Texas, the late Ann Richards. I don't find Ms. Kehn's name among the online list of current members of the D.C. Bar Association, although that could also simply reflect her retirement from practice. If anyone can lay hands on definitive info one way or the other, please let me know by email or in a comment. Thanks!)

One of my regular commenters posted a link to another media source that had listed Mrs. Thompson only as being a "media consultant" at Verner, Liipfert, but I still decided to do some very light non-Google research of my own.

And it took me exactly one email exchange to get a provisional answer from a very reliable source I know who is, as they say, "close to the campaign" — someone whose name I already knew from blog and newspaper reading. After doing his own upstream checking, my source followed up with a more confident answer within a few hours. On June 26th, then, I published an update to my June 24th post stating that I'd been "advised — via an email from a trusted correspondent who's well connected to do such checking, and who was kind enough to do so (but prefers not to be named) — that Sen. Thompson's spouse generally goes by 'Jeri Thompson,' and that she is not a lawyer herself."


Whether or not its writers were sloppy in not reading the comments on Captain Ed's post that they quoted from directly, how much solace can the WaPo take in the fact that it and other mainstream media outlets jumped to the same mistaken conclusion that he did? Well, let's start by checking — as MacGillis' blog post suggests — the "holy writ that is Google."

Google_page_jeri_thompson2_2 As of this moment, if you Google search on "Jeri Kehn Thompson attorney" (either with or without internal quotation marks around her name), my June 4th and June 24th posts are the second and third entries. Indeed, if you simply enter the term "Jeri Kehn Thompson" into Google with quotation marks around it, my June 4th post is the third result listed out of 26,600. (Without the quotation marks, my post only drops to fifth.) From that post, you're only one link away (via my own trackback there to my June 24th post) from my update on June 26.

This precisely fits what the National Review's Byron York quotes Sen. Thompson as saying:

Some [recent mainstream media] reports, Thompson said, have contained substantial factual errors. "Things that you would think could have been checked fairly readily," he told me, "but things that are clearly erroneous — like she’s not a lawyer and she’s never been married before. I listened to a news show with an expert commentator about a week ago talking about Jeri, and in a short segment he had four totally erroneous factual errors about her."

The bottom line: Back as of early June, neither Captain Ed nor I nor anyone else could very easily have determined, via the first few entries in the "holy writ that is Google," whether Jeri Kehn Thompson is or isn't an attorney. But certainly as of late July or August, someone damn sure could have. And should have. So the only story here is that WaPo and other mainstream media have been very, very sloppy in their basic fact-checking. And as I wrote at the beginning of this post: That's only moderately interesting at best, and hardly a surprise anymore.

Posted by Beldar at 10:28 PM in 2008 Election, Mainstream Media, Politics (2007), Weblogs | Permalink


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