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The Gary Condit/Chandra Levy Story: What Is News?

July 11, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Joining us now to discuss “what’s news” are four long-time media men: Wolf Blitzer, the anchor of CNN’s daily program “Wolf Blitzer Reports,” and the host of “Late Edition” on Sundays; Phil Bronstein, the executive editor of The San Francisco Chronicle; Steve Koepp, the number two editor at Time Magazine; and Carl Gottlieb, the deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Gentlemen, I’d like to begin by going around the table, in effect, and asking for your impression of the coverage so far. Good or bad? Too much, not enough? Phil Bronstein?

PHIL BRONSTEIN: I don’t think it’s a question, Ray, of too much or not enough. I think that there’s a litmus test that we seem to be applying here. When you went down the laundry list of media outlets and those that had put it on the front page or not — I think the tabloids do what they do. This is a story, among other things, about the convergence of sex and power, as was the Clinton-Lewinsky story, and that’s been a subject of great interest to human beings for at least two millennia, that we know of. It’s also a story that’s a “whodunnit?” — not to make light of what may be a serious case; missing persons, at the very least.

It turns out to be, as we understand it, a case of — as was the case in the Clinton- Lewinsky situation — of a member of Congress lying to his staff, or at least the staff representing things that weren’t true, and I think it’s about a potential abuse of power. That is separate and above from the issue of a potential crime. So I think this is a story of great interest. And the media outlets, as you mentioned, have covered it in the way that they saw fit. I think the coverage has been appropriate. Tabloid coverage has been appropriate to tabloids, and The New York Times has been appropriate to The New York Times.

RAY SUAREZ: Carl Gottlieb?

CARL GOTTLIEB: It’s hard to argue that this isn’t a news story, I think it is for many of the reasons that Phil cited. At the same time, when we don’t have enough meat there, when there aren’t any real facts to go on, what we see, and we see this particularly with the 24-hour cable networks, is the creation of news. Fox, yesterday or the other day, had an interview with a lawyer for Miss Smith who recounted the alleged sex practices of the Congressman. I’m not sure why that’s news.

What was worse is the reporter interviewing him never challenged, never delved, never asked “why are you telling me this, and why is this news?” CNN has done Internet polls, which are pretty much meaningless as we understand them, to find out whether or not the Congressman should take a lie detector test. What’s that all about? It’s the creation of news to appear that there is more to a story than exists.

I’m not against covering this, I think we have to cover it. I think that we should do everything we can to dig out the truth, whatever that truth may be. But at the same time, we can’t let the almost show business aspects of trying to keep a story hot for 24 hours at a time take over the real information.

RAY SUAREZ: Wolf Blitzer?

WOLF BLITZER: Well, there’s no doubt in my mind this is news, this is serious news. I’ve been a reporter here in Washington for more than 25 years, and I don’t remember when the D.C. Police force, the D.C. Police Department, conducted a midnight search of a sitting Congressman’s apartment here in Washington, DC I don’t remember when there was a time when they were pressing a sitting Congressman to accept a lie detector test. I don’t remember when they… I do remember when the Monica Lewinsky investigation, when an Independent Counsel was seeking a lie detector test and doing interviews with all sorts of people.

But in this, on this day, we do see a flight attendant who has alleged that she had a year-long affair with Congressman Condit, come to Washington, and be questioned by representatives, senior representatives, of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia. All of these are legitimate aspects of a story that is sad at its core because there is a young woman who is missing, a 24-year-old woman, and all of us, of course, would love to know that she’s okay. But there’s a very sad aspect to this story, the fact that she remains a missing person. But it’s taken on so many other strange twists that I don’t see how we can ignore it.

RAY SUAREZ: Steve Koepp?

STEVE KOEPP: I think every media outlet does what they individually do, and each has its own distinct character. Our approach has been measured with two or three modestly long stories because our standard is: What new information or context can we bring to it? At the same time, I don’t begrudge anybody their pleasure in speculating about it on TV, or around the water cooler, or anywhere else, because it’s a tantalizing case. But a lot of times leaps are made that aren’t really the kind of thing that we would cover, such as the fact that just because the guy is lying means that he’s also lying about maybe being connected with the disappearance of this woman. Having affairs is all about lying, as we learned from other cases. So we shouldn’t be too surprised that that’s happening here too.

RAY SUAREZ: We’ve heard, Wolf Blitzer, from Carl Gottlieb, from Steve Koepp, talking about what’s new, and when you revisit a story, on a place like CNN, are you almost bound to do something tomorrow because you’ve been doing a lot today and doing a lot the day before today?

WOLF BLITZER: Well, we have been doing a lot, and I don’t think we have to apologize for that at all. And if there are new developments, we’ll continue to do a lot, because this is a story that has generated a lot of interest out there around the country for a variety of reasons. Some of them may be, may not necessarily be the best of reasons, given the sexual aspect of this story. But there’s been a lot of interest in this story. So we’ll continue to cover it, and I don’t think we should back off if there are new developments, we’ll go forward.

One thing that I want to say about, you know, the saturated coverage that some are suggesting, all the cable news networks are giving it: people don’t sit for 24 hours a day and watch television. Some people watch for a half-an- hour, other people may watch for an hour, some people may watch for five or ten minutes. So it’s not as if they’re watching this, most of our viewers are watching this 24 hours a day. Most people watch CNN or the other cable news networks for a lot less than that.

CARL GOTTLIEB: Wolf, I agree, that isn’t how people watch television for the most part. But when you turn on a CNN– and I’m not singling them out here– or any cable network, and the first thing you see is a promo or a tease for the latest news on the Chandra Levy or the Condit investigation, and then the latest happens to be a walking shot or the latest scrum outside somebody’s house, and there really is no new information.

What this tends to do is alienate viewers. It also really eats at the credibility of the organization reporting this as news, because in the end there is no news. And personally I’d be happier, and I think a lot of people would be happier, to see coverage come when there are indeed new developments. Now, the midnight search, the lie detector, indeed, they’re unusual events and they should be covered. But what do we know beyond that? And all I’ve heard today is, you know, what I heard this morning, frankly.

PHIL BRONSTEIN: Can I just say something, as a newspaper person who doesn’t necessarily have to defend his own medium. I think it’s really important to understand that the public is not stupid. So when we talk about TV alienating viewers, or newspapers alienating readers from magazines, the public has its own response. Now, television has a measure of that response, day in and day out. So if, in fact, CNN, or MSNBC, or CBS is alienating viewers– in CBS’ case, by not running the story– they’ll find that out and there will be a response, there’s much more responsiveness in the media to the public than I think some people who analyze the media understand.

Those of us who sit in the newsroom every day, you know, our readers at The San Francisco Chronicle vote with their quarters each and every day, and we pay attention to that. That’s not to say that the newspaper, any more than CNN, is run by readers or viewers, but certainly we have to pay attention.

We all got upset, people in the media, because why weren’t people out there, why wasn’t the public getting angry at Bill Clinton? You know, the public responded in its own way, in its own time, as it always does. They’re thinking, real people out there, and they respond to what you put on the air or put into your newspaper, and you know what that is.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you worry at all, Phil, about the participation of various media outlets as players in this story — demanding that certain interviews be conducted, demanding that the investigation take certain directions, and then, low and behold, it starts to happen?

PHIL BRONSTEIN: Well, I think everyone is playing that game, in reality. You know, the Washington, DC police, from the chief to the number two guy — suddenly, you know, he’s a suspect, he’s not a suspect, they’re going to his house to take blood samples, or look for blood samples… Clearly, I mean, I think it’s clear that the Washington police is leaking to The Washington Post, everyone is – as you will — playing this in this. But this happened with Barbara Walters and Menacham Begin and Anwar Sadat. Was it Barbara Walters, I think, who organized the first interview between an Egyptian president and Israeli president and presumably one might argue led to… Now this is not in that league, but the reality is the press is always intervening in some fashion, that’s what the press does.

WOLF BLITZER: If I could just add to what Phil is saying, I read an excellent column today by Maureen Doud in The New York Times, and she’s a great writer, as we all know. Let me read what she says about coverage, legitimate coverage of this story. She says this: “This is the stuff of great drama in novels and journalism through the ages. It’s just as legitimate as covering the patients bill of rights or campaign finance, maybe moreso because here the press has a crucial role in forcing out the truth.”

And I think the Levy family from the beginning understood this, certainly that’s why they brought in public relations team Billy Martin who was Monica Lewinsky’s mother’s attorney, a high-powered team to try to generate some publicity in the search for their daughter, and no one can complain about their efforts since they’re at the center, of course, of this entire drama.

But on the other side, now you have Congressman Condit bringing in a very well-known prominent attorney, Abbe Lowe, who is one of the impeachment counsels on the Democratic side in the case involving President Clinton.

So there are so many aspects of this story that are so interesting and they can’t just be seen in the vacuum of the missing persons case, it has to be seen in the drama of Washington, DC, a politician and a young intern, there’s a lot of aspects of this story that I think are definitely worthy of coverage.

RAY SUAREZ: Steve Koepp, is there a distinction to be drawn between reporting and actual presentation? Are you and your team doing a lot of work on this story that we’re not yet seeing in the pages of the magazine?

STEVE KOEPP: Yes, we’re working on it because one of the important things in a missing persons investigation is the time value of the information. And the investigators have been so incredibly slow and deferential to the Congressman in this case, and they may have lost the chance to make, take advantage of certain tips or leads that the Congressman may have had. And why this happened is fascinating. And I think the media clamor about this has put pressure on the investigators to finally get going and try to catch up with this.

RAY SUAREZ: Does it force an organization like Time, even if your first inclination is to stand on the sidelines, to eventually get in line and start covering this more heavily? Do you watch what everyone else is doing?

STEVE KOEPP: I think we are doing things behind the scenes sometimes that we don’t necessarily put into the magazine because it’s not ready yet. We’re certainly working on this story all the time. And as things go on and we have something to contribute, as we have two or three times, we’ll do it again. The case with more information coming out about the Congressman, it’s gotten more and more fascinating.

RAY SUAREZ: So when do we get to the point where it clears your bar, Carl Gottlieb, and everybody is ready to jump into the pool?

CARL GOTTLIEB: It’s really cleared my bar. My biggest complaint about this is the saturation coverage, the coverage we see on TV where we’re actually watching the process. And sometimes the process doesn’t produce any more news than one person shouting at another. Again, I have to say, and I’ve spent most of my life looking at ratings in television newsrooms, that viewer erosion, because of mistrust, doesn’t happen overnight, it happens over time. And if you look at the households using television for news over the years, they’ve come down dramatically. And every time we have one of these stories that we drag on forever, present something as news that isn’t really news, that really turns out to be a better yarn than it is informative, I think we alienate our viewers just a little more.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thanks to you all. Unfortunately, we’ve got to go.