Magazine writer Charles Pierce was hanging out at a Boston-area TV studio last
Wednesday, waiting to do a segment for ESPN News, when word came that the
biggest tabloid story of 2001 had suddenly lurched back to life. "Right when I
got there, the police in D.C. found Chandra Levy's body in the park," Pierce
wrote in a dispatch for Slate's "Breakfast Table." "You should have seen
the place. Instant Pundit Defcon 2! `Sweetheart, get me a former prosecutor,
and make her a blonde!' "
As Pierce's anecdote shows, last week's news about Levy (or "the raven-haired
beauty," as the New York Post inevitably calls her) seemed to unleash
all the worst aspects of the old media order -- an order that many observers
had hoped would give way to something new, better, and more serious after the
terrorist attacks of last September 11.
The story of the Intern and the Congressman -- a story of sex, lies, and a
mysterious disappearance -- captivated the media for much of last summer. And
though the question
of whether Representative Gary Condit might have had
something to do with Levy's disappearance was hardly unimportant, the unbridled
sensationalism with which it was covered marked a low moment for the media --
which have, after all, given us so many low moments, from O.J. to Monica, from
Princess Diana to JonBenét. At least that's how the conventional wisdom
had it. And now the story from tabloid hell is back.
"It was like being stuck in a time warp. Back to the days of All Chandra All
the Time," Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz wrote last
Thursday, the day after Levy's skeletal remains were found in Rock Creek Park.
"The same reporters, the same experts, the same D.C. police chief, the same
pictures of Gary Condit, the same speculation, the same unmitigated excess as
last summer, in that less serious, pre-9/11 world."
Syndicated columnist Mary McGrory lamented on Sunday that the media were all
but ignoring the most important stories of the day. "But Washington is not
focused on scandals in Enron or intelligence," she wrote. "Neither can compete
with the police investigation of the case of Chandra Levy, a Washington intern
with big hair and big dreams and an affair with her California congressman."
The break in the Levy story came just as the Project for Excellence in
Journalism announced the findings of a new study that showed the Big Three
network newscasts had returned to their pre-September 11 selves, cutting back
on hard news and playing up lifestyle-oriented features. Just eight months
after the worst terrorist attacks in US history -- events universally regarded
as being as calamitous and paradigm-shattering as Pearl Harbor -- the media
were right back where they started. Let the hand-wringing begin.
Well, pardon me if I can't get all worked up about the big, bad media returning
to their nasty, scandal-mongering ways. The media ethics surrounding the
Chandra Levy story have always been more complicated than the finger-waggers
would have it. No, the fate of the republic does not depend on identifying her
killer. But let's not forget that a member of Congress lied to police about his
relationship with her. Those lies certainly impeded the investigation and at
least theoretically could have reduced the chances of her being found alive.
Of course, the details of last week's discovery suggest that Levy was dead
before the police knew she was even missing. But the big unknown remains the
same: whether Gary Condit knew she was dead before anyone knew she was
missing. Because the lizard-like Condit remains a prime suspect, if not
the prime suspect. District of Columbia police chief Charles Ramsey has
refused to rule Condit out, and has also said that he might order that Condit
be interviewed for a fifth time.
The tut-tutters never tire of pointing out that Levy is just one of hundreds of
thousands of missing people in the United States, and that the media don't care
about those cases. On Larry King Live last Wednesday (most entertaining
Larry question: "The discovery was made by a dog?"), Ramsey noted that, over
the past couple of decades, 232 adults and about 100 juveniles have gone
missing in Washington alone.
But in none of those cases is there a possibility that an elected member of
Congress was involved in the disappearance. That doesn't justify media excess
in the Levy case. But it does justify tough, ongoing scrutiny. Yes, Social
Security reform needs to be covered. (Yawn.) But let's not pretend that a story
about a congressman who may have murdered his girlfriend isn't pretty damned
OF COURSE, there's a difference between the media's taking their role seriously
and just plain wallowing around in the muck. The absolute bottom of Chandra
mania last summer was brought to us courtesy of the Fox News Channel, which
actually put psychics on the set to discuss Levy's fate.
As reported by James Taranto, who writes the indispensable "Best of the Web"
feature for the Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal
.com site, a
"so-called spiritual medium" by the name of James Van Praagh turned up on
Judith Regan's show. Paula Zahn (before her jump to CNN) interviewed not one
but two psychics, Rosemary Altea and Sylvia Browne. Give Browne a couple of
points for accuracy, anyway. "This girl -- I am sorry to tell you this, but
this girl is not alive," she told Zahn. Even Mr. No Spin Zone himself, Bill
O'Reilly, communed with Paula Roberts, whose parlor tricks include analyzing
handwriting and speaking to the dead.
"Does Roger Ailes watch his own network?" asked Taranto. "Maybe it's time he
started, because the folks at the Fox News Channel desperately need some adult
supervision." Well, maybe so. But at least Ailes didn't give a talk show to
Georgia state representative Dorothy Pelote, who -- according to the Associated
Press -- told startled House members last summer that she and Levy had been
having some heart-to-hearts across the great divide. "You know who I'm talking
about. She has visited me. She has," said Pelote, who revealed that the dead
had been dropping by for visits ever since childhood, when she was brought back
from the brink of death in a near-drowning accident.
In part because of Fox's antics, there is a perception that the Summer of
Chandra was pretty much a cable-only phenomenon -- that while Fox, CNN, and
MSNBC chattered about Chandra nonstop, the august network newscasts remained
above the fray. In fact, though it's true that the cable outlets chewed up by
far the most hours, the story was a cross-media phenomenon. According to the
Tyndall Report, which tracks what the three broadcast-network newscasts
are covering, Chandra got more minutes than any other story during a total of
three weeks last summer and was number two on a couple of other occasions. The
first of those number-one placings, in mid July, came even though Dan Rather
and company were refusing to air the story at all on the CBS Evening
News -- a bit of over-fastidiousness far less defensible than the overkill
that was taking place on NBC.
Chandra made her way into the daily newspapers, too, including the good ones.
It's a local story for the Washington Post, a convenient fact that has
given the paper entrée to wallow in every last detail of the case even
while Howard Kurtz and Mary McGrory (who's based at the Post) lecture
others for doing so. The Post, to its credit, hasn't interviewed any
psychics or engaged in the sort of rampant speculation indulged by some
less-scrupulous news organizations (although it did break on its front page the
story about Condit's alleged affair with the 18-year-old daughter of a
Pentecostal minister, which it later had to retract). Still, the Post's
obsession with the minutiae of the case has led to some odd moments.
Take, for instance, this paragraph, from a Hank Stuever piece in the Friday
Style section about the park where Levy's remains were found, headlined THE
WOODS, DARK AND DEEP. Her body was found by a man walking his dog, looking for
turtles -- a development that Stuever, apparently in some sort of
terrapin-crazed reverie, called "a smaller, far more benign kind of Rock Creek
Park mystery, but a mystery all the same: Why turtles? What happens if the dog
finds one? Does the dog hurt the turtles? Does the man take them home? Or do
they just commune with the turtles?"
And hey, do turtles really taste like chicken?
Until last week's discovery, the end point of the Chandra story appeared to
have taken place late last August, when Condit submitted himself to an inept
but aggressive grilling by Connie Chung, the fading ABC sob sister.
(Salon had readers suggest questions that Chung should ask. My two
favorites: "I hear you're a fitness buff. Are you strong enough to lift
something the size of, say, Chandra?" and "Are you smiling, or just showing
your teeth?") There was something unappealingly déclassé about
the whole thing -- the sleazy, bug-eyed William Macy look-alike and the fallen
network star, each hoping against hope that their pathetic encounter would lead
to a career revival. (For Chung, at least, perhaps it did. Now she's got her
own primetime show on CNN and a chance of finally winning some respect.)
Condit's relentlessly evasive answers to her mind-numbing repetition of the
same three questions (Did you have sex with her? Did you kill her? Why won't
you answer my questions?) led even those who had previously assumed Condit
to be innocent to wonder whether he really did have something to do with
her disappearance. As Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times, "At a time
when Americans are said to value authenticity above all else in their
politicians, Mr. Condit is nothing if not authentic -- an authentic
creep. He didn't apologize for anything. He didn't express sorrow for the Levy
family. He didn't cry. And what thanks did he get for being so forthrightly a
heel? Over and over politicians, pundits and citizens faulted him for not being
phony enough -- for not being as good an actor as Bill Clinton."
Then came September 11, and the Chandra story went into a deep freeze. Condit
lost his re-election bid in the Democratic primary. And there matters remained.
Until last week.
IT MIGHT NOT have passed muster with the Project for Excellence in Journalism,
but Mickey Kaus said what everyone was thinking in his Slate dispatch
last Thursday: "Gary Condit may well be cleared of the Chandra Levy murder --
that would be intensely disappointing, but it's possible." And he followed up
with some wanton speculation as to why the location where she was found
suggests that she was not out jogging, as Condit defenders want us to
presume. "That's a 7 or 8-mile jog, round trip. . . . Was Levy
training for a marathon? Most joggers fall into the 2-5 mile camp, no?"
In a similar vein, Greta Van Susteren popped up on her Fox News colleague Bill
O'Reilly's radio show last Thursday to talk about why Levy couldn't have
possibly been out getting some exercise. "You don't jog in this area," she told
him. "There's not a jogging path in this area." O'Reilly agreed: "I'm not
buying into this jogging thing. It's too far from her house." Van Susteren said
she thought the eight-mile distance practically proved Levy wasn't out jogging,
although she added that "maybe it's because I'm a slug." O'Reilly, describing
the area where Levy's body was found, said that "when you're trying to hide a
body, you look for a place that's inaccessible."
Without a hint of self-awareness, O'Reilly then opened the lines to callers
with this warning: "I don't want to hear any theories or speculation, because
that doesn't get us anywhere."
Is this responsible journalism? Well, no. But it's emblematic of our modern
media culture, where there's no monolithic agreement on standards because
different media require different standards. The police have never identified
Gary Condit as a suspect, but they haven't ruled him out, either. It is
perfectly fair and true to say that he might have killed Levy, and that his
behavior was so reprehensible that he has called suspicion onto himself. How
this -- the information and the speculation -- is handled by Mickey Kaus, Bill
O'Reilly, and Greta Van Susteren is totally different from how it is handled by
the New York Times and the Washington Post or, for that matter,
by Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw.
Maybe what's most striking about the way the media have covered the Chandra
story is not the moments of excess, but the self-flagellation that accompanies
each outbreak of tabloid exuberance. As Julian Borger wrote last summer in
London's Guardian, "The reason this young woman's disappearance is being
given so much coverage is because she had an affair with a politician. But is a
sexual relationship between two adults, even if it involves adultery, the
business of media? Of course the answer to this question in the British press
would be a resounding yes. Scandal drives sales, and that pretty much drives
the argument in the highly competitive world of British newspapers. Perhaps the
US press is more reflective and takes its role more seriously, or perhaps the
lack of serious competition faced by the major city newspapers means that they
can afford such navel-gazing."
Last summer, in a piece for an online publication called the Albion
Monitor, the Nation's Washington editor, David Corn, lamented the
media's obsession with Chandra. "There is a rough hierarchy to how much of the
media -- particularly broadcast media -- rates newsworthiness," he wrote. "In
descending and simplistic order: people, politics and policy."
That's right. But Corn's complaint was not that Condit's role in Levy's
disappearance wasn't a story, but that the cable news channels and the tabloid
press were covering it to the exclusion of almost everything else. His idea of
more-worthy stories: the patients' bill of rights, campaign-finance reform, the
stem-cell debate, and a battle between the NAACP and the White House, among
Yet the quality media are filled with such stories. Rather than complaining
that important issues aren't getting coverage, Corn seems disgruntled that CNN,
Fox News, and MSNBC aren't shoving them down the throats of viewers who don't
care about them. So what? The combined circulation of the New York
Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal is
greater than the average combined viewership of the three cable news channels.
National Public Radio covers the issues -- and has some of the highest ratings
on radio. And yes, it's sad what's happened to the Big Three newscasts, but
anyone who doesn't like them can switch over to The NewsHour with Jim
Lehrer -- that is, if they can stand a show that equates "serious" with
"dull enough to induce unconsciousness."
By Sunday, Chandra mania was already dying down. What more is there to say? If
police interview Condit again, it will heat up -- and it should. If Condit is
arrested, all hell will break loose -- and it should.
I started this piece by parroting the conventional wisdom that Chandra mania
was a low moment for the media. And there were times that it was. But with the
exception of cable-news obsessives, the vast majority of Americans learned
pretty much what they should have learned: that a sleazy congressman had been
caught up in the disappearance of an intern he'd been boinking, and that he'd
lied to police about some details that might have helped their investigation.
If the public learned more about that than it did about the Bush
administration's efforts to scuttle international arms-control agreements,
well, in a perfect world I suppose I should get worked up about it. But this
isn't a perfect world.
Besides, I want to know what happened to Chandra Levy, damn it.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Issue Date: May 31 - June 6, 2002