Like many other news items that have ballooned to huge national proportions in recent years, the story that made Gary Condit infamous has been largely propelled by cable television. It's the media scandal of the season. Eager to rev up their ratings, the networks are in salacious overdrive.
Reporters, pundits, forensic experts, police officers -- and of course, plenty of lawyers -- are all over the tube, spinning through every real or imagined detail about Rep. Condit's sexual relationship with government intern Chandra Levy.
Summertime ... and the titillating is easy. It's time to dish!
Early this month, when flight attendant Anne Marie Smith appeared in a Fox News interview to say she'd had an affair with Condit, she zoomed to instant celeb status. Since then, whether walking her dog or pulling luggage through an airport, she has become a familiar sight on television.
At MSNBC -- eagerly providing wall-to-wall coverage of "The Search for Chandra" -- the network's executive producer, Ramon Escobar, claims to have no misgivings. "Columnists criticize cable for doing too much, but this is a story with a lot of stuff going on," he said the other day. "I'd rather err on the side of too much. You've got to dive into it."
No matter how shallow the pool.
TV grab released by Fox News Television 11 July, 2001 shows Anne Marie Smith, a former flight attendant, during an interview in Washington DC. Smith, who has been related to Californian Democrat representative Greg Condit over revelations that she too had an affair with the Congressman, said that a lawyer asked her to lie to the Federal Bureau of Investigations about it. Condit, who admitted 06 July he had an affair with Chandra Levy, a 24-year-old intern missing since 30 April, has had his apartment combed 11 July by officers from the Washington Metropolitan Police.
The heaviest coverage on broadcast television has come from "NBC Nightly News," which aired 10 stories about Condit and Levy during a single week. In contrast, "CBS Evening News" was conspicuous for staying away from the story, though CBS devoted major attention to the subject on other programs -- including "Face the Nation," where correspondent Bob Schieffer broke new journalistic ground by asking whether Levy might have been pregnant when she disappeared.
In a somewhat defensive appearance on the PBS "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," CNN's Wolf Blitzer did his best to justify the onslaught of Condit-Levy programming on cable. "I don't see how we can ignore it," Blitzer said. That was, of course, a straw argument -- as if the only choice has been whether to "ignore" the story or turn it into the current media mega-mania.
A visitor from another planet, sequestered in a hotel room with a cable hookup anywhere in America, might plausibly assume that Levy's fate and Condit's actions are of grave national import. With so many hours devoted to the story on each cable news channel, the stakes would seem to be momentous. Yet -- aside from the media space it takes up -- the story has approximately zero importance for public policy and the future of our society.
Predictably, media commentators on the political right have tended to be most rabid in their denunciations of Condit. After all, he's a Democrat. But ironically, Condit is far from liberal. As a founding leader of the party's Blue Dog faction, he has worked hard to move his colleagues rightward.
"Condit's conservative Blue Dog Coalition has gained stature in the Republican-controlled House," the home district Fresno Bee reported in January 2000. Days later, the newspaper explained: "With the GOP holding a slight majority, the votes of conservative Democrats such as Condit are highly sought."
George W. Bush offered his embrace. "When Condit cast one of the few Democratic votes for President Bush's budget and tax cut package," according to the San Jose Mercury News, "he was rewarded with a seat at Bush's table during a celebration of the president's first 100 days in office."
To hear some bombastic media pros tell it, the Condit scandal is a crucial litmus test for human morality in our nation. On the right-wing Fox News Channel, the network's star Bill O'Reilly has been in seventh heaven. "This is about honesty and cruelty," he proclaimed on his July 10 program. O'Reilly was full of compassion: "The suffering of a family, whose daughter may have been murdered, is extremely important."
Minutes later, O'Reilly introduced Oliver North, the former Reagan administration operative who funneled weapons to the U.S.-backed Contra army while it killed thousands of civilians in the Nicaraguan countryside. Who better to discuss issues of "honesty and cruelty" and "the suffering of a family"? O'Reilly did not mention his guest's murderous past.
North, who broke federal law with impunity while working in the White House, lost no time denouncing Condit. "He makes laws that affect all of us," North said. "You cannot have one set of personal morality for your private life and another set of morality for your public life."
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.