Coverage of "socialite" Jill Kelley turns Petraeus affair into Real Housewives of Tampa episode
A reader asked an interesting question on Twitter: Would media be so interested in the life of Tampa housewife Jill Kelley if the word "socialite" wasn't attached to her name?
It's a fair question. But the Tampa Bay Times story today on the background of Kelley and her more troubled twin sister Natalie Khawam, shows the two women used their social connections to recently-resigned CIA director David Petraeus and under-investigation Afghanistan commander Gen. John Allen to secure letters of recommendation in a custody battle Khawam ultimately lost, amid an admonishment from the judge for her lack of "honesty and integrity."
Indeed, as the world's media turns its attention to Kelley -- whose complaint to an FBI agent friend sparked an investigation revealing Petraeus' affair with his biographer -- the story begins to resemble a Real Housewives episode, outlining the social climbing of two beautiful women inside Tampa's big money social scene, particularly those devoted to the area's high-profile military crowd.
Fox News may have the most explosive story today, citing an unnamed official who alleges that some of Allen's many emails to Kelley were sexually explicit messages comparable to "phone sex."
Fox News has been one of the more aggressive new outlets covering the controversy surrounding Petraeus' resignation, saying FBI officials were initially concerned harassing emails Kelley complained about may have involved an attempt to blackmail the then-CIA director.
But as information on the actual investigation is in short supply, the world's media has trained its gaze instead on Kelley, her family's money problems and her status among the volunteers arrayed to help personnal at MacDill Airforce Base in Tampa, the nerve center of the U.S. war efforts in the Middle East and a frequent stop for big names such as Petraeus and Allen.
In the process, the rush for information has turned just about every reputable news outlet into tabloid reporters of a sort, staking out Kelley's Tampa home and documenting her attempts to ingratiate herself with powerfful military figures.
"Obsessed with generals," pronounced today's Daily Beast story, describing how Kelley pushed her way into jumping with a team of elite paratroopers. Gossip website Gawker posted a flowchart of the scandal which looks like an incomprehensible maze of arrows and insinuations, indentifying Kelley as an "unpaid social liason in Florida."
The New York Post noted the frenzy for footage has even led reporters to badger the Food Network for footage of the twins' appearance on a 2003 episode of Food Fight, so far unavailable because Superstorm Sandy knocked out the network's online servers.
Even the FBI agent who tried helping Kelley has entered the media mix; barred from the case and rumored to have sent shirtless photos of himself to Kelley, he's now inspired a cheeky t-shirt which declares "I am the shirtless FBI agent."
David Simon, a former police reporter at the Baltimore Sun who went on to write for and/or create the TV shows Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire and Treme, wrote an impassionated blog post decrying the Petraeus coverage, recalling "the specific moment I swore off the sex lives of the famous as journalistic currency."
Still, the coverage continues. The Huffington Post wrote: "South Tampa is a conservative Southern community of big houses, big bank accounts, garden clubs and wives who pride themselves on volunteer work. A lot of the brass from MacDill Air Force Base, where Central Command is headquartered, live or socializes in South Tampa, and helping members of the military is a major volunteer activity."
But another HuffPo story asking tough questions about the charity Kelley operated with her cancer surgeon husband, Scott Kelley, noted: "according to Tampa-based lifestyle writer Shawn Alff, high society events in the Tampa Bay area don't have much in common with parties in ultra-rich communities like the Hamptons or the Upper East Side of New York City. 'It seems like an oxymoron to say 'high society' in Tampa,' Alff said in an interview. 'Tampa doesn't have the tradition of wealthy people being here for generations, so if you're wealthy in Tampa, you're going to spend half your time interacting with regular people.'" (note: the original Huffington Post article misspells Alff's last name.)
Reuters has weighed in with a similarly measured story, describing how assignments to MacDill became a sought-after posting in the military, in part due to the efforts of volunteers such as Kelley.
The story quoted the publisher of the area's glossy chronicle of high society events, Tampa Bay Magazine, on Kelley: "'I like to think of her as a welcome wagon,' said publisher Aaron Fodiman. 'When a new general's wife arrived and said, 'I want to know where to get my hair done and where to buy a birthday cake for my kids,' they knew they could call Jill and she would always help them. Everybody called Jill.'"
Reuters also referenced an ABC News report that Kelley has represented South Korea as an honorary consul since August, "driving around town with a Florida consular license plate 'JK1' on her Mercedes." ABC's report also said Kelley often drops the honorary from her title, quoting a State Department official insisting "she has no affiliation with State."
In sideways fashion, these reports burnish Tampa's reputation as a nexus for eccentric, scandal-tinged goings on. Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren offered a blog post featuring a business executive who claimed Kelley used her consul title to suggest she could facilitate a deal involving the coal industry in South Korea, seeking a finder's fee worth millions.
Media outlets have been pushed into acting like stalkers, gathered in a swarn outside Kelley's home on upscale Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa, snapping photos and footage of her watching news reports on the scandal before the picture window in her home.
Later Tuesday, she emerged in a form-fitting pink dress, providing new grist for tabloid outlets which have already given us such Pulitzer-worthy headlines as "in the line of booty."
Petraeus' other woman, biographer Paula Broadwell got similar treatment Tuesday, photographed through a window having dinner in her brother's home.
Beautiful women, looking like prison inmates photgraphed through windows in private homes, as reputable news outlets troll for gossipy details like adjuncts of TMZ.
What does all of this have to do with national security or the careers of two men at the top of America's military and intelligence communities?
Who knows? But it will sure make a great Real Housewives series when the dust clears.