• U.S.

Against Chandra-Vision

3 minute read
James Poniewozik

Ideally, news organizations do the right things for the right reasons. In reality, it’s a good day when we manage half the equation. In defending the CBS Evening News’s decision to abstain until last week from the brimming trough that is the Chandra Levy/Gary Condit story, Dan Rather hinted he may have done the wrong thing. “Maybe we should have run something [earlier],” Rather told radio host Don Imus. “But I don’t think so.” His reason: he and his head producer had declared Levy/Condit a “tasteless” nonstory about what is so far a noncrime. Criticized within the journalism community, Rather’s newscast finally reported Wednesday that the FBI was moving the investigation to its “cold case” department (i.e., “this story is not a story”). Even then, Rather groused to Imus, his bosses caved to pressure by doing the piece at all. (Other CBS programs, including the weekend Evening News, have covered Levy.)

Sex, lies, power. All that kept this from being the perfect story was a crime and a suspect. So the media created those by implication. There was saturation coverage on cable, with pundits offering film-noir scenarios. The New York Post blared the news that Condit’s website solicited applications for interns (to be fair, the line REP SEEKS WOMEN TO HAVE SEX WITH AND KILL never actually appeared). Even less sensational outlets (including TIME) ran tangential-at-best stories such as a minister’s claim, later recanted, that Condit had had an affair with the minister’s daughter.

Rather seems willfully stubborn when he maintains that Condit’s lying was never news. But if a story is being overcovered elsewhere, your viewers may be better served by news about, well, anything else. During the week of July 9 to 13, when NBC devoted 18 minutes to Levy, CBS devoted more time to the Middle East, stem-cell research and federal funding for religious charities, says TV-news watchdog the Tyndall Report. Insists NBC’s Nightly News executive producer Steve Capus: “There were no stories we kept off the air that I wish we had covered instead.”

Perhaps the most telling lesson about today’s media in Rather’s high-profile dissent is that this sort of thing is so rare. More typically, outlets decide a story is news because everyone else is doing it, a gentleman’s agreement that absolves any individual of blame. Perhaps that’s why the resentment of CBS was so vehement. Critics questioned Rather’s news sense and argued that the CBS Evening News was taking the high road as a marketing gimmick. To some, Rather was the prude at the bachelor party who needed to have a tequila shot and a lap dance and to stop pretending he was better than everyone else.

It’s possible that the rest of the media did the right thing for the wrong reasons by hounding Condit into admitting his relationship with Levy to police. It’s even conceivable that the media’s darkest guesses could materialize–but that would not justify the extent and tone of coverage to date. That’s worth remembering, as journalists try to do right by a story that has been marked by a lot of wrongs and little reason.

–Reported by Elizabeth L. Bland/New York

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com