But tired as the topic may be, there is something fresh to be learned from this latest round of media self-flagellation, especially the curious and hypocritical noises emanating from the camp that believes the Modesto congressman's private conduct has not been relevant to the disappearance of the young Washington intern.
You hear frequent complaints, for example, that the jabbering personalities on 24-hour cable news networks shoot off unprovable, hyperbolic nonsense in the guise of insight. But these complaints, as often as not, are themselves unprovable, hyperbolic nonsense, frequently uttered on those very same talk shows.
Texas columnist Molly Ivins, for example, said on CNN that the coverage was "sensationalist, salaciousness and not real news," and "a disgraceful performance." New York University Media Studies Professor Mark Crispin Miller called it "an embarrassment for the press and a disaster for American democracy." Former Reagan administration State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb spent six consecutive appearances on "Reliable Sources" condemning the media circus as "petty, pointless journalism," and worse.
With media criticism spreading like kudzu these days, especially on the Internet, perhaps it's no surprise that participants are differentiating themselves by pitching their voices to maximum shriek. But it's still jarring to witness accomplished professionals deciding it's okay to make disparaging allegations and grandiose assertions that couldn't possibly be true.
Consider this conclusion to an incendiary anti-frenzy column July 25 by Washington Post op-ed veteran Richard Cohen: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to know better knows precisely what the Levy-Condit story is: pornography by another name." (Italics mine.)
Well, I'm a journalist, and I'm not too stupid or too full of myself (at least not as full of myself as Richard Cohen) ... and I know no such thing. Call me a hair-splitter, but watching a shell-shocked family trade implicit accusations with a silent, teeth-gritting politician just doesn't quite rise to the level of pornography for me.
This is more than just a healthy debate over proportionality within the big tent of journalism. This is a prime exhibit of how some of the profession's would-be standard-bearers have adopted a set of "news values" that are increasingly hostile to the very notions that journalism should be competitive and entertaining, or that it should cover real individual people and scrutinize elected public officials.
It comes as no surprise that these are the same class of people who have spent the last four years fretting about "news at the speed of cyberspace," instead of celebrating the renegade journalism explosion ushered in by the Internet. Meanwhile, some of the most interesting and useful criticism of the Chandra Levy coverage is being published online, especially on the Web logs of involved journalists like Mickey Kaus and his friend Joshua Marshall.
The Four Fallacies
There have been enough interviews with psychics, publication of falsehoods and relentless speculation to arm an entire division of media critics for a whole summer's worth of scandal. But instead of being satisfied with these easy and deserving targets, they have gone as far as declaring -- as fact -- such wholly insupportable claims as "Gary Condit didn't do it."
Each of the main lines of argument against the "24/7" coverage provides real insight into the weaknesses of pedigree journalism and its pet watchdogs.
1. It's only about sex
"The story is being pursued because it is about sex. In an era full of soggy news, this is something we can all understand. And so these outlets -- particularly the once-dignified CNN and the increasingly tawdry MSNBC -- have gone all Condit, all the time, even when, strictly speaking, they have nothing new to report. It doesn't matter. What matters only is the subtext of the story: sex. The story is about that and only secondarily about a missing woman. But that cannot be admitted."
One of the reasons why the French media hasn't covered this story very much is that there isn't enough sex. There are no tales of in flagrante delicto phone calls with Yasser Arafat, no elusive soiled garments, basically no revelations (that I've seen, anyway) about the intimate substance of Chandra Levy's affair with Gary Condit. Perhaps only in America could something so sexless be "all about sex."
More importantly, almost everyone who uses this argument leaves out the phrase "public official," preferring to substitute it with "celebrity." Gary Condit is a congressman -- U.S. taxpayers cover his $145,000 salary, staff his three offices, pay for his unintentionally funny Web site, and in return he's charged with defending the interests of Central California residents and representing the United States to foreign officials.
The "Fourth Estate" is supposed to challenge every expenditure of taxpayer money, and every action by elected politicians. The Levys are Condit's constituents. Their fellow Modesto residents re-elected the congressman after he ran on a family-values platform, pressured Bill Clinton to publicly confess his private sexual conduct, and advocated posting the Ten Commandments in public classrooms. Regardless of his role in the Chandra Levy disappearance, he has brought shame and discredit on the House of Representatives.
"This story ... where it stands now, isn't about Gary Condit doing a violent crime, because we certainly have no evidence to say that might have happened," Fox News host Bill O'Reilly said July 20, in one of several sensible comments he's made about the media coverage. "What it is about is Gary Condit, a congressman of the United States, behaving brutally toward a family in pain."
Sex, and the dark allure of an affair between a powerful older man and an ambitious young intern, is obviously a key component of this story. But so is mystery, human drama, tragedy ... and the creepy, hypocritical, and potentially obstructionist conduct of a high-ranking government official.
Still, that doesn't stop the First Amendment's guardians from dismissing the case as an overheated sex story, and arguing that the seamy motivation might actually threaten press freedom.
Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs told CNN on July 6, "The thing about this story is sex. Sex sells." First Amendment Center Executive Director Ken Paulson wrote in Newsday July 26 that the frenzy was helping to create a "real backlash against the First Amendment." Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, wrote in a New York Times column July 22 that "surveys show significant numbers of Americans doubting the worth of the traditional watchdog role of the press. One can only question the wisdom of alienating a large percentage of a public that now has the ability to screen out the news it does not want by turning to the Internet."
When private sex spills over into possible misuse of public power, clearly the U.S. media (quite unlike the British) feels dodgy about covering it. One reason, probably, is residual trauma from the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky flap, played out in an atmosphere where the press covers lawmakers and governance less than ever (which perhaps helps explain why few journalists got worked up over Clinton's usage of public officials to clean up his affairs).
Meanwhile, some of the most explicit and randy writing on Levy/Condit has, bizarrely, come from the same people who condemn the coverage as being sex-driven. Robert Reno (Janet's brother) of Newsday wrote July 19 that, "Some day this nation will reach a level of maturity in which we finally realize that everybody in America lies about sex." Come again?
And cherubic conservative Tucker Carlson, who seems to have become totally drunk with the sound of his own voice, wrote the most salacious (and disturbing) Condit-related passage to date, in an indefensible New York Magazine column published July 30:
"The tabs reported that one of Condit's former girlfriends once found two neckties knotted together beneath his bed. This was offered as proof that Condit is a practitioner of 'kinky sex.'
2. Condit's not a suspect, therefore we should lay off, and ... well actually, it proves he had nothing to do with it
"What right does the press have to be judge and jury until there is hard evidence that he committed a crime? Shouldn't his status be left to law enforcement authorities, to his constituents, and perhaps a House Ethics committee?"
"I think, you know, this is a case for the D.C. police and for federal authorities to deal with. What I'm worried about, from a journalist's point of view, from an ethics point of view, is whether the public has a right to know all these details as this investigation is ongoing. We don't yet have a crime, we don't have anyone even charged with a crime. We don't know if there's anything that's happened, other than the fact that he's lied to us."
"The police said that after three interviews, Condit had told them everything they wanted to know. ... Investigative privacy is at least as important as sexual privacy, and not only to the people being investigated but also to the police. ... When journalists feel free to investigate and publicize the secrets of anyone they suspect of deceiving the police, people will clam up or disappear.
"Judging from police statements and available evidence, Condit's connection with Levy's disappearance seems to be similarly incidental: he was having an affair with her but appears removed from the actual circumstances of what happened to her. According to the police, he is not now and never has been a suspect. He dissembled about his affair with Levy to hide his marital infidelity, but with his indiscretion now public he has apparently come clean with -– and satisfied –- the police. Yet these facts seem to matter little to the press these days."
"Condit has cooperated, and about as fully as anyone could. Still, police pretended not to be satisfied. The [lie detector] test indicated Condit was telling the truth. The cops scoffed, dismissing the test as 'self-serving' because Condit's attorneys set it up. A police spokesman said the department wanted a new test, this one administered by a current employee of the FBI. But if Condit had been able to beat one exam, as the cops implied, why wouldn't he be able to beat another? Good question. Not that anyone asked it. Not that it matters. ... There is no evidence that he was involved in Levy's disappearance, much less her murder. Everybody knows this."
These five quotes, collectively, represent the most appalling crime journalism I think I have ever seen. Let's run through the most egregious of the sins, in chronological order:
A. Where, exactly, have the press acted as "judge and jury" in this case? Where did anybody say something like, "Gary Condit is guilty of murdering Chandra Levy"? Oh yeah, nowhere ... except in the righteous fantasies of media critics.
B. Since when does The Nation and its buddies on the Left consider it wise to leave criminal investigations up to "law enforcement authorities ... constituents, and perhaps a House Ethics committee"? Why don't we leave Mumia Abu-Jamal's murder conviction up to "law enforcement authorities"? Oh yeah, it's because we don't trust government agencies to deliver justice without scrutiny. Unless, apparently, the people calling for said scrutiny work for Rupert Murdoch.
C. What kind of J-school professor gets "worried" about "whether the public has a right to know all these details" about an investigation into the possible murder of a young woman whose closest friend in town was a United States congressman with a reported track record of weird jealousy and secrecy with his various girlfriends, one of whom claims he and his lawyers pressured her to sign a false affidavit? The public certainly has the right to know about every last bit of the government's business, with the extremely rare exception of legitimate national interest.
D. Since when does a person -- let alone a congressman -- need to be "charged with a crime" before we investigate and write about him? As my Australian colleague Tim Blair pointed out in an e-mail, "Woodward and Bernstein didn't have a clue that Watergate led to Nixon, either, until they pursued the story. Sometimes investigative journalism involves, you know, investigation." Statistically, Condit is far more likely to have been involved in Levy's disappearance than the president was in some incompetent hotel break-in 30 years ago. There was actually a great exchange between O'Reilly and Professor Ross on this point:
O'REILLY: What happened in Chappaquiddick? Do you know, professor?
E. Jonathan Rauch, whose column is among the worst of the media-bashing screeds, wrote that "police said that after three interviews, Condit had told them everything they wanted to know." Interesting, considering that they actually said they wanted to know more, and in fact called Condit in for a fourth interview.
F. By Rauch's logic, journalists should refrain from writing about all criminal investigations in progress. Imagine such a world -- the Los Angeles media, for example, wouldn't have written a single word about the extensive Rampart police-corruption scandal until the District Attorney's office brought the first cases to trial. Of course, the cops want no such thing -- publicity can be very useful to them, as it has in the Chandra Levy case. It was only after the Washington Post published the allegations by Levy's aunt that the congressman finally told the FBI about his affair, according to reports. It was only from watching TV news that a witness recognized a guy throwing a watch case into a dumpster as Gary Condit.
G. Professor Steinhorn concludes that Condit's role in the disappearance "seems to be ... incidental," and reports (falsely, it turns out) that the congressman "has apparently come clean with -- and satisfied -- the police." He also asserts flatly that Condit "dissembled about his affair with Levy to hide his marital infidelity." All this in a column criticizing the press for engaging in "speculation ... without any foundation in fact." Steinhorn's speculation is not one iota more valid than if I wrote that Condit's involvement in the case "seems to be ... crucial," and that he dissembled about the affair "to hide his role in Levy's disappearance." He doesn't know, and I don't know either.
H. Tucker Carlson, in his bush-league column, writes: "Condit has cooperated, and about as fully as anyone could." How the hell does he know? He also asserts, "There is no evidence that he was involved in Levy's disappearance, much less her murder. Everybody knows this."
CARLSON: Apparently the FBI is saying what you know and have known I bet for a long time, which is Gary Condit didn't do it. He's not responsible for her disappearance. So it turns out that's what the FBI believes, and I think you will agree that they are probably right. So why have media outlets, including Salon.com, been running story after story after story about Gary Condit's involvement? What is the justification for that?
Unless Carlson is privy to some special insider information, he is basing this on the fact that police have not admitted finding evidence, and have declined to call Condit a "suspect." There are many reasons for not calling a person you suspect a "suspect" -- for instance, when several police interviews are conducted on a non-adversarial basis, it is possible to weave a web of potential perjury and obstruction charges, which in turn can be applied to pressure co-conspirators to talk. A "suspect" charged with a crime from the get-go would likely say nothing, removing those investigative options.
Or maybe authorities truly believe he didn't do it. The crucial word here is "maybe." Crime reporting is a delicate business, and few do it well. What's distressing is to see those with zero fluency in covering the cops beat be the first to criticize competitive news organizations who do -- the New York tabloids, local TV news programs, cable news networks -- while at the same time making the kind of basic errors in judgment and language that would get a New York Daily News reporter immediately fired.
Take talk-show personality Bernie Ward of KGO-AM San Francisco, as cross-examined by O'Reilly July 5:
WARD: There is no connection whatsoever between the affairs and -- and the disappearance. And, listen, I've --
3. Cable TV is rotting our souls!
BERNARD KALB: You know, you have a feeling as you watch cable television, particularly, that the galaxy is rotating around Condit and Levy. It seems to be spinning. And one of the things I'm observing the last few days is the introduction of kind of soap opera vignettes, and let me hear what you think about this. Little teasers, we'll come back after the commercial, little teasers, did they look in the garbage pail and what did they find. Well, they looked in the garbage pail, you learn later, and they found something that has no relationship to the case. Isn't there a point of this being what amounts to petty, pointless journalism?
"Now Levy and her suffering parents I care about, although, quite honestly, not nearly as much as I did, having been desensitized by TV's overkill, this daily tonnage turning them almost into abstractions. ... Because I'm paid to observe these coconuts."
"Today, feeding the 24/7 beast that calls itself news creates degrading pressures -- often resulting in the selling of salacious details to the public. The desire to boost ratings and command more advertising dollars doubtless prompts some producers to report things that simply haven't been proven true, just to keep the story 'alive' -- such as suggesting that Rep. Gary Condit (D) of California could be a suspect in the case when the police, all along, have said he wasn't."
"Here's what's new: There was a time when we, the public, could turn to high-minded news to reinforce our impulse to stay on the high road. That's hard now. For perspective, mainly we're left to ourselves."
You'd think, reading all this, that Fox News, MSNBC and CNN dominate Nielson ratings and set the nation's media agenda.
Uh, not quite.
The average number of households tuned to MSNBC in July (the height of the Chandra frenzy) was a whopping ... 195,000, according to Nielsen Media Research. That's about the same number of people who bought Los Angeles Magazine last month. "At any given moment," the New York Times reported July 30, "cable news audiences represent only about 3 percent of all people watching television."
The evening news programs of ABC, CBS and NBC each pull in around 8 million viewers a night. The most popular cable show would be lucky to get 700,000, and that's still less than the circulation of The New Yorker. Every night, 280 million Americans don't watch Geraldo, Chris Matthews and Jeff Greenfield.
Critics -- especially bitter souls like the L.A. Times' Rosenberg, who has been forced to watch and write about TV for the last three decades -- routinely confuse their own compulsive cable consumption with that of the rest of the population (call it the "Sopranos Phenomenon").
Who are the biggest channel-surfers in times of breaking scandals? The same people who reload Matt Drudge 15 times a day during a crisis -- journalists. They can afford cable and Internet access, and assume the rest of us can, too. Aside from single-issue fanatics and the truly bored, I doubt any cable TV viewers are more attentive -- and therefore more likely to be annoyed -- than reporters.
Which makes it all the more surprising that these same people accuse networks like CNN (the "Condit News Network," as Rosenberg put it) of flagrant irresponsibility in covering Chandra Levy. In my more limited viewing, that just hasn't been true. CNN's Bob Franken has been an outspoken skeptic of the story's newsworthiness from the beginning, even while following the case every day. NBC's Andrea Mitchell is a smart, careful reporter who lends gravity and solid sourcing to her frequent updates.
If anything, I have been surprised by the lack of 100 percent all-Chandra on demand (then again, my evil cable company, Adelphia, recently yanked Fox News off my basic-cable package). And I actually find it useful when CNN's Greta Van Susteren breaks down how the grand jury system works, or when Larry King interviews scared-looking, self-described Condit-ex Anne Marie Smith (who Rosenberg dismissed, cruelly, as being "14 minutes through her 15 minutes of fame").
If I wanted a Levy fix in print, I had better buy a supermarket tabloid or live in one of the handful of cities with a competitive newspaper market -- very few monopolist dailies outside of the Washington Post and the Modesto Bee have covered this story with vigor and front-page play.
In short, the media has by and large behaved exactly the way Todd Gitlin and his alarmed cohorts have asked them to. The exceptions to the rule have demonstrably smaller audiences. It's going to take more than that to ruin journalism standards.
4. What about global warming?
"I'm sure it is very sad that Ms. Levy is missing, but it's not going to change people's lives."
I am always surprised how some journalists -- especially those on the Left -- are reluctant to cover an actual individual human being. Searching eternally for the "broader context" is a large reason why newspapers have gotten out of the business of covering crime, or government (or, in fact, "news"); no reason to "sensationalize" by focusing on a specific conflict, when you can spend a year to put together a 12-part series about the "trend."
What's interesting about these objections is that they're based on an assumption of wall-to-wall Chandra Levy coverage that just doesn't exist. CBS Evening News famously didn't even mention that cops rifled through Condit's apartment. The New York Times has barely touched the story. Even the cable news shows I've watched -- with the notable exception of "Reliable Sources" and "Larry King Live" -- have dutifully discussed the Patients' Bill of Rights, campaign finance reform, George W. Bush's various withdrawals from global treaties, economic upheavals in South America, volcano eruptions in Sicily, wildfires in the western United States, proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, etc.
Yet editors continue making decisions to downplay the story based on the "frenzy":
"While Washington and much of the nation's radio, television and press and Internet outlets titillate themselves and they hope you, with the latest rumors and speculation about what they believe is a 'sexual scandal,' ... it may be as good a time as any to ask: why isn't there at least equal attention being paid to what's happening to the world economy?"
My friend Tim Blair again put it best: "And there you have it. You can't expect any news organization to cover both Condit and the world economy."
Certainly, some have blown this story out of proportion, crowding out some worthy topics in the process. But just as certainly, others have disproportionately shied away from the story, including one network news division (CBS) that is notorious for running cross-promotional fluff about shows like "Survivor."
Luckily, there are still tens of thousands of media outlets in this country -- even if most of them are concentrating at an alarming clip. The views excerpted above only represent one side of a thriving, multi-faceted argument. There may be as many media critics attacking Dan Rather as defending him, and some have stood up to applaud the papers that usually get a bad rap. Of those columns, my favorite was probably by Tunku Varadarajan in the July 17 Wall Street Journal:
"The promise made daily by the New York Times, that it will furnish a reader with 'All the news that's fit to print' for a consideration of 75 cents, is a curse that hangs heavily over the American media. That smug slogan serves as a leitmotif not merely for the Times, but also, by a process of osmosis and emulation, for most other general-interest papers in the country, as well as for much of the broadcast media. ... In America, as the Levy story shows, the highbrow is invariably high-handed -- and often insufferably so."
Is Lewinsky Remorse feeding the media watchdogs? What's the point of attacking coverage of the Condit/Levy story? Voice your opinion in the OJR Forums.