CORN: Gary Condit and Popcorn Journalism
I swear -- please believe me -- I was not going to write about the Chandra Levy-Gary Condit matter. Really. Then I tripped across this line tossed out by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd in reference to the Levy-Condit story:
"It's just as legitimate as covering the patients bill of rights or campaign finance, maybe more so, because here the press has a crucial role in forcing out the truth."
Maybe more so? Hours before I perused these three words, I had been called by a booker for a cable television show. The previous day The Washington Post had published a story noting the executive producer of The CBS Evening News considered the Levy-Condit business non-news and had kept any mention of it from passing between Dan Rather's lips. Would I come on the show, the booker asked, and defend the Condit-ain't-news position? (I guess the producer himself was unavailable.)
Of course not, I replied. I had already appeared on several news-talk shows discussing the case. Obviously, I believed it is a subject deserving coverage. But I said I would be glad to appear on the show to discuss the proportionality of the coverage. Does it warrant all the attention it has been receiving, particularly on the cable news networks? Has the story been excessively hyped to Monica-ish levels and inappropriately gussied up with dramatic musical cues and miniseries-like titles (MSNBC: "The Search for Chandra"; Fox News Channel: "Vanished: Where is Chandra Levy?")
Look at how the media first covered this, I told the booker, who was too polite to hang up. They started somewhat bashfully and cautiously. The sex angle hovered in the background, but most of the media were slow to go all out on the story. The Washington Post demurely placed much of its early coverage in the Metro section.
As facts (and speculation) emerged and sex became a explicit component of the store -- and as Condit's lies about the sex became apparent -- the cable networks and the tabloid newspapers pumped up the coverage. And the cable-nets and the tabs had what they are ever on the look-out for: the One-Big-Story that can play day after day, dripping with drama and peopled by characters. In this instance, an ambitious, missing, young -- and pregnant? -- woman, a congressman who rides a hog, a frightened flight attendant, and -- get this -- a minister's daughter. More to come, presumably. Reality television don't get much better.
Hell, yes it's a story. A congressman withholding information relevant to a police investigation and a congressman perhaps suborning perjury (by allegedly asking the flight attendant to lie to the FBI about their alleged affair). And there is the prospect of the murder of a woman who was entangled with a lawmaker. ("A philanderer or a murderer?" one MSNBC reporter said breathlessly.) The question, I said to the booker, is not whether to cover the case, but how to cover it while maintaining perspective on what else is happening in our wild and wacky world.
"Well, it's summer," she replied. "Not too much is going on." (She was echoing a soundbite from University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato: "I always tell political people that summertime is the most dangerous time of year because something is going to fill the media void. And that something is usually scandalous.")
Testing her patience, I remarked, actually there's a lot of newsy stuff transpiring, and I went through the list. The patients' bill of rights, the no-holds-bar battle over campaign finance reform, the disappearing budget surplus, the Bush Administration effort to scuttle a UN conference designed to control the global flow of small arms, the stem-cell debate, the Bush discount drug plan assailed by critics for being a half-measure, the exchange of fighting-words between the NAACP and the White House, the Olympics in Beijing, the smelly deal in which the Salvation Army backed Bush's faith-based initiative in exchange for a White House regulation that would allow the Salvation Army to escape local and state anti-discrimination laws, the political fundraising records just set by both parties, the acceleration of Bush's unbudgeted national missile defense plan, the conservative initiative for a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage.
That's not bad for mid-July in a non-election year.
"I'd be happy to come up and ask the host -- reasonably, of course -- how he decides which stories are important enough to talk about at length," I noted. "Why does the Levy-Condit business deserve half-an-hour and campaign finance reform a couple of minutes, if that? This could be an interesting discussion and, better yet, might make for good TV."
There was a pause on the other end. "I know, I know," I said. "That's not what you're looking for." And she went off in search of someone who could shout "white," while the host shouted "black." Or is it the other way around? We traded good-byes.
Enough about me. Back to Dowd. She was trying too hard to justify the Condit chase. It's no surprise that readers and viewers are interested in sex and scandal -- and they are entitled to news in that regard. (I soak up the stuff, too. Who doesn't?) Moreover, Condit's withholding of information in a criminal inquiry is a public matter. (It's not the sex, it's the lie -- remember that?)
But there isn't much nobility in covering this episode. There is no question of tremendous public significance here. Discerning Levy's whereabouts is indeed important, as is doing the same for the scores of other Washington adults who have gone missing. But "forcing out the truth" in this regard, as Dowd advocates, is not about locating Levy and bringing comfort to her distraught family. It is about getting the lowdown.
Certainly, there is a public service in holding a lying lawmaker accountable -- especially one who may have robbed police investigators of precious time by sitting on the truth for two months -- but "Gone: the Adulterous Congressman and the Disappeared Intern" is not being produced to achieve good-government. It is being mounted to -- brace yourself for the obvious -- spur titillation and enhance ratings (or circulation).
The Levy-and-Condit saga is not a more "legitimate" journalistic target than campaign sleaze or health care policy. If the media used its resources, in hot-pursuit-style, to "force out the truth" on the institutional corruption in Congress or on the question of which patients' bill of rights legislation (the McCain-Kennedy version or the one backed by Bush) is better, then a round of self-congratulations would be appropriate.
There is a rough hierarchy to how much of the media -- particularly broadcast media -- rates newsworthiness. In descending and simplistic order: people, politics and policy.
If you got something juicy about a famous or powerful person, that's best. Go with the drama.
Then there's politics -- as sporting event. Who's up? Who's down? You have drama here, too -- what's known as the horse race -- for there are winners and losers in elections and in legislative battles. Forget the societal implications of a tax cut, will its passage bolster the President, will its defeat sink him? How often has the campaign finance reform issue been depicted in the media as a Bush-versus-McCain duel of resentment? Isn't it more interesting to watch two guys engaged in a grudge match than to figure out who's right and who's wrong on soft money limits and the legality of restrictions on independent expenditures?
At rock-bottom is reporting on policy. Shortly after George W. Bush assumed the position of president, he canceled regulations that Clinton's Labor Department had established regarding workplace ergonomics. Whether the figures were inflated or not, the regulations were designed to stave off 1.8 million injuries a year. It was a two-day story.
Compare that to the hyper-coverage of Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich. As odious a presidential act the pardon was, it did not represent a crisis of any sorts, its consequence was limited to a few persons -- not millions. But the episode did involve the Slickster-in-Chief (a neverending source of ink) and money and a fugitive financier (which in the newsbiz probably rates ahead of a missing intern not linked to a congressman). It was a continuation of the best Washington soap opera the media has ever seen. With the Clinton-Rich tale so much in the news in January, Bush's early decisions received less attention.
That's the problem. Not the reporting of the down-and-dirty but the squeezing out of other stuff. On July 12, The Hotline, a political tip sheet, noting the pending House vote on the campaign finance reform bill, quipped, "Thanks to a certain feeding frenzy, will those [House members] on the fence have a 'free vote' because no one's paying attention?" Good question. That evening, after the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill was derailed in the House on a procedural vote, the political chat-shows were dominated by huffing heads who were casting out hunches about the Condit affair and raking over that day's specks of news, not John McCain or Representative Tom DeLay, a chief opponent of the reform measure.
Please, Maureen Dowd (and anyone else who might peddle a similar line), let us have no media self-delusion about this latest of frenzies. You don't get points for running after a made-for-TV, sex-and-scandal story -- even when it is "legitimate" fare. That's like stuffing your face with popcorn and claiming credit for eating vegetables.