Condit story is real news, not just ratings hype

Posted: Aug 10, 2001 12:00 AM
That's what a protester was yelling into a megaphone outside Gary Condit's district office the other day. Personally, I think this is hilarious. Still, I can understand why some journalists more in need of a high-fiber diet might sigh at yet another example of what a spectacle the Condit story has become. I have some advice for the editors and executive producers out there. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher's statement to the first President Bush after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, "Don't go wobbly on me now." I despise journalistic cliches, and I'm none too fond of the journalists who cling to them. Whenever I hear Very Serious Journalists talking about how they are fast at work on "the first draft of history," my eyes roll so far back I can see my frontal lobe. Still, all cliches have some merit, otherwise they'd never have become cliches in the first place. And the mother of all journalistic cliches is the hunch. Indeed, the mythology of the Great Journalist is deeply bound up with the hunch. Great Journalists "go with" them. They "roll up their sleeves" to work on them. They "sniff out leads," "dig up dirt" and "follow the money" out of loyalty to them. Pretty much every tale of a great journalist - from Edward R. Murrow to Woodward and Bernstein - involves someone indulging his "gut instincts" and "following his inner" X, Y and Z because a hunch told him to. Now, if the Gary Condit story doesn't tingle your inner X, Y or Z, then you don't deserve to be a journalist. In the Condit case, we have a congressman who has refused to say a word publicly about the disappearance of a woman he was having an affair with. He has claimed he won't discuss the case because he wants to protect his family, even though the Condit media frenzy was caused precisely because he wouldn't discuss the case. There's more of course, that we're all familiar with. Consider these disparate facts: - Chandra Levy's disappearance is completely consistent with abduction by someone she knew. She left her wallet, credit cards, etc. behind. Meanwhile, Condit insisted that Chandra never carry ID when they went out. - Just prior to the search of his apartment, Condit drove to Virginia and threw away evidence of another illicit relationship. - Condit allegedly encouraged a lover to sign a false affidavit. - Neighbors heard a woman's scream prior to Chandra's disappearance. Chandra's computer might have been searched. - Condit has a sketchy brother, a relationship with the Hell's Angels and, worst of all, funny hair. Yes, yes, there's no definitive proof that Condit had anything to do with Chandra Levy's disappearance. We all know the Dan Rather position of taking the higher ground. But (ital) all (end ital) ongoing news stories lack conclusive proof right up until the point they don't. Then, the story's over. Watergate looked like it was going nowhere for months on end. It was largely because the known facts didn't jibe with the public explanations, or lack thereof, that The Washington Post stuck with the story during the dead months (though we shouldn't completely discount the importance of the media's irrational Nixon hatred). Currently, there are no Condit-free explanations for Chandra's disappearance that are more plausible than the ones positing some nefarious activity on Condit's part. If a complete stranger nabbed her, we'd have to dismiss all sorts of funny-smelling coincidences and answer the question of Condit's continued silence. If it was suicide, where's the body? If she's in hiding, why are her parents being put through this hell? Where can she hide with no money or credit cards? Again, this doesn't mean the congressman is guilty of foul play. But the evidence to date more than exceeds the minimal requirements for a good hunch. Indeed, this is the only noble explanation for why (ital) so many (end ital) news organizations jumped all over the story. One need not defend every nanosecond of the round-the-clock coverage to defend this as a legitimate story. The hype may have been ratings-driven, but that doesn't mean the story is just about ratings. And, remember, a hunch isn't wrong just because many people have it. Now that the D.C. police are winding down their investigation and the story looks stuck in the summer mud, the question is whether enough good investigative journalists will stick to their hunches. In 1995, Jim Warren, the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau chief, gave the commencement address to the Columbia University Journalism School. He lamented to the students that "instead of relying on gut instincts, many editors may now fall back on focus group research: asking consumers what they want." Well, now that the Condit ratings appear to be dropping, we'll learn which editors were relying on gut instincts and which ones went with the focus groups.