RAY SUAREZ: It started as a story of a missing 24-year-old intern in Washington in the spring.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC: Good evening. Tonight the plot has thickened.
RAY SUAREZ: It has blossomed into a summer blockbuster of a media story, leading some national and local newscasts and playing on the front page in many papers. Initially, the reporting focused on the fact that a young graduate student, Chandra Levy, from a well-to-do California family, could not be located. Her parents hired a public relations group, which had dealt with the media on other high-profile missing persons cases, to give their case a full court press.
SUSAN LEVY: If for my reason my daughter hears this, somehow we can get her home.
RAY SUAREZ: When the "friendship" that Levy, a paid intern at the Bureau of Prisons, had with California Congressman Gary Condit was reported, coverage of the case increased significantly.
FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Fox on top of shocking new allegations about the private behavior of Congressman Gary Condit.
RAY SUAREZ: In post-Monica Washington, the story of a young woman, a government intern linked to a married Congressman, proved irresistible for 24-hour cable news channels which, in some cases, gave the story play at the top and bottom of every hour, whether there were new developments or not. Over the weeks TV and radio talk shows –
ABC NEWS ANCHOR: That he did tell the police – the Congressman – that she spent the night in his home.
RAY SUAREZ: -- and the network morning shows gave the story a great deal of time while some newspapers, especially the New York tabloids, devoted banner coverage to it. Congressman Condit's aides, and then attorneys, denied that he had an intimate relationship with Levy and took the media to task, by writing letters correcting details in stories-- such as these letters to The Washington Post and The New York Daily News -- and refuting charges in the press. Then came an interview with a flight attendant, Anne Marie Smith, who told Fox News she'd had an affair with Condit, and that the Congressman asked her to lie to authorities about it. Condit says Smith's story is not true.
RITA COSBY, Fox News Channel: Do you believe that Congressman Condit and his staff were asking you to sign something that they knew was false?
ANNE MARIE SMITH, Flight Attendant: Yes.
RITA COSBY: How so?
ANNE MARIE SMITH: Well, obviously Mr. Condit knew it was false. And he was asking me to sign it.
RAY SUAREZ: A change in the intensity of the coverage came last week when the media, quoting sources -- not the Congressman or police -- reported that Condit admitted in his third interview with police that he had a relationship with Levy. The family has tried to keep the story of their missing daughter in the news, especially in cable stations, on the air around the clock.
SUSAN LEVY: Thank you very much. We’re going in to watch CNN.
RAY SUAREZ: The CBS Evening News has not mentioned levy in its weekday coverage at all. ABC's World News tonight has aired coverage of the story twice. The NewsHour has not mentioned the story until tonight. NBC Nightly News has run ten stories. The Washington Post has largely put the story in its metro section, giving the story front page play only three times. The New York Times has given it no front-page coverage, while USA Today ran its first front page piece this week. Many in the media tried to couch their coverage in terms of a political story. What did Condit’s constituents think? How would it affect his re- election? But Condit's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, told the press they're missing the real story of where is Chandra.
ABBE LOWELL: Go take your cameras and your pads and your pencils, and try to see if there is somebody else out there who might have some information that could actually find this woman.
RAY SUAREZ: And, Tuesday as Condit's fellow House Democrats tried to brief reporters about energy policy, they faced this reality: Many in the media are focused on another story.
REPORTER: Has he told you the truth about this matter?
REP. F. ALLEN BOYD: Never talked to him. Any other questions on energy?
RAY SUAREZ: The picture of the throngs of journalists covering Condit's attorney's press conference are reminiscent the scenes outside Monica Lewinsky's lawyers' office three summers ago. And once again the news business is asking itself, "what is news?" -- and "when does a story with no known crime, no charges, no named suspects, become fair game?"