The Condit Saga: To Cover or Not to Cover?

Something terrible has happened.

Media are being applauded for digging their customary foxholes into this millennium's first screeching, banner-headlined story of the century that won't go away. Everywhere on television this week, these guys were praised for wedging themselves like painful gallstones into the Chandra Levy-Gary Condit saga.

Only amnesiacs will have to be reminded that Levy is the 24-year-old government intern who has gone missing in Washington, D.C., causing great anguish for her Modesto family, and Condit the California congressman, a Democrat, who after initial denials has reportedly now admitted to police that he was involved sexually with the USC graduate student.

Why cheers for hounding Condit and bear-hugging a story becoming as titillating as potentially tragic, coverage inevitably raising suspicions about him even as Washington, D.C., police continue to maintain he is no suspect in Levy's ominous disappearance?

Because he is an unsavory slug, one of apparent low integrity whose self-serving conduct here inspires no sympathy or compassion, and because Levy's distraught parents have publicly thanked the media for keeping a spotlight on their daughter.

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Why is this terrible? Because huzzahs for hyperventilating media encourage them to raise the tabloid bar even higher next time. And be assured there will be a next time, sex and murder (which the Levy case implies), along with celebrities, increasingly becoming the mother's milk of much of journalism.

Not that any prodding is needed by a media crowd whose tawdry pedigree includes abuse of innocent Richard Jewell--all but indicted by many of them for the Atlanta Olympic bombing in 1996--and JonBenet Ramsey, whose unsolved murder has been tightly embraced especially by TV because she was white, her parents were rich, and there was home footage of her at kiddie beauty pageants that could be replayed endlessly.

It's terrible, also, because TV's coverage has ranged from undistinguished to unsavory, especially on the 24-hour news networks.

As in reports on the Fox News Channel on Thursday that police found in Condit's apartment "what could be pinpoint specks of blood." Could be? Or perhaps may not be? And this is going out, raw, to viewerdom?

As in, also, reports everywhere Thursday of another Condit romantic interest, supposedly age 18, added to flight attendant Anne Marie Smith's own widely reported claim that she had an affair with him.

As if any of this was necessarily connected to Levy's disappearance.

It is news that a congressman who publicly espouses family values may be a hypocrite, and that one of his reported lovers, Levy, is now missing. And the snubbing of this story by "The CBS Evening News," by the way, is a true curiosity.

The question, though, is how much news? Not this much, surely, its tonnage assuming a life of its own that promises to live on indefinitely, bumping from newscasts stories of vaster significance.

It was Wednesday.

* On CNN (the Condit News Network), anchor Joie Chen was asking reporter Bob Franken, "What about the other other woman?" John Walsh was telling anchor Wolf Blitzer that the show he hosts, "America's Most Wanted," would be airing an "exclusive" interview with Levy's family.

* On MSNBC, "Hardball" host Chris Matthews was shouting, at times seeming even to spit, before asking someone if Condit's "sexual behavior, the way he deals with women," was being investigated.

* On the Fox News Channel, host John Gibson was asking a polygraph expert if it was possible for someone like Condit to "hide or mask the signs you would be looking for" in the lie detector test Condit has not agreed to take and may never take. On the retribution beat, a Fox reporter was saying "fear of retribution" was stopping both Democrats and Republicans in Modesto from publicly commenting on Condit. When Gibson wondered about the nature of the retribution, she replied that fear of retribution was inhibiting those same people from telling her what the retribution would be.

Also on Fox, host Tony Snow and reporter Rita Cosby were conducting an "exclusive" team interview of Smith, who also claims Condit asked her to sign an affidavit denying having an affair with him, a charge he has rejected.

Responding to a question from Snow, Smith said Condit never acted violently toward her. Beyond that kernel, the interview, which Fox widely replayed and trumpeted as a major coup, was a classic case of elevating form and process over content. The biggest news was not anything Smith said, but that Fox got her to say it. For example:

Snow asked if Condit ever spoke to her about his wife. Just how was that directly related to Levy vanishing?

Snow asked if Condit threatened her should she speak publicly of their affair. "No, he didn't," she replied. "But I knew what the consequences would be if I did speak out." Snow asked her to elaborate. At last, a headline. "He would probably end the relationship," she replied. Oh, that.

Again, what did any of this have to do with Levy being missing?

Cosby asked her what she thought "the results would be" should Condit take a lie detector test. Smith had no idea.

Snow asked: "What do you think, if anything, he knows about Chandra Levy?" Smith had no idea.

Cosby asked: "What do you think . . . Condit's role may have been with Chandra Levy's disappearance?" Smith had no idea.

Snow asked Smith if she had asked herself what she had in common with Levy. "I'm not quite sure how to answer that," Smith said.

Snow asked if hairs she saw in Condit's bathroom "were Chandra Levy's possibly?" Smith replied: "Possibly." If they were Levy's, of course, that would be expected were she having an affair with Condit. So what's the big deal?

So much for Fox's "exclusive," a questionable triumph that was inflated Wednesday night also by its snorting Bill O'Reilly, steam shooting from his ears, accusations from his lips as he used the occasion to praise his own show, attack competitors and express his displeasure with the Levy-Condit investigation.

"I'm not happy about this," he told America about the case his network had catchily titled "The Chandra Drama."

Far beyond the Beltway, meanwhile, Los Angeles station KCBS flashed its dazzling sense of humor Wednesday by seeking counsel about Levy-Condit from Tom Lange, a lead LAPD detective in the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, who noted that the congressman was "caught with his pants down around his ankles."

Much of the media? No pants at all.

Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at howard.rosenberg@latimes.com.

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