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The Condit Saga: To Cover or Not to Cover?

'The CBS Evening News' has stood alone in its silence on the story, which has raised questions of news judgment.

July 13, 2001|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the now-daily tumult that is the story of missing federal intern Chandra Levy, Jim Murphy watches and waits. Murphy, executive producer of "The CBS Evening News," has made waves himself this week, as a sober arbiter of news begging off a story that most media outlets--from major daily newspapers to nightly network news shows--can't resist.

On Wednesday, "CBS Evening News," so far alone among the cable and broadcast news networks in not covering the story, was set to join the pack, reporting on the Washington, D.C., police search of Rep. Gary Condit's apartment. But by the end of the day, Murphy saw little new in the wall-to-wall TV coverage of an event that was almost a day old and pulled the story from his newscast, leading the news with President Bush's proposals for prescription drug discounts as part of Medicare reform.

Thursday brought a new potential bombshell--a Washington Post story saying FBI officials had interviewed a Modesto Pentecostal minister who said that his then-18-year-old daughter had had an affair with the congressman seven years ago. Murphy professed skepticism; he'd seen another report on CNN's Web site that the woman had posted a note on her front door denying any past involvement with Condit. "There's a lot of strange people involved in this," Murphy said. As of noon, he said he didn't intend to broadcast the story.

There are layers everywhere in the unspooling story around Levy and Condit. Both the family of the missing woman and the increasingly disgraced congressman have spin-meisters of their own, massaging and reacting to what the media dig up. Daily, news organizations make decisions that, through happenstance or not, define their attitude toward the story. Coverage has reached the kind of critical mass that prompts a spasm of punditry and self-assessment.

Much of it has been targeted at Murphy, who finds his "CBS Evening News" being defined as curiously absent on the story or misguidedly highhanded. As his competitors chase the juiciest story of the summer, bearing down on apparently false statements Condit has released through his staff, Murphy says he doesn't consider himself a martyr to responsible journalism. Nor, he says, is he seeking to gain publicity by holding his program up as a source of more substantive issues. Yes, he feels pressure, and yes, the Levy case is a hot-button topic in news meetings. But Murphy, who hardly sounds cranky on the subject, says he returned from vacation Monday and was "disturbed" by the frenzy of coverage on morning news shows. He made a decision not to cover the story on his newscast barring a major development in the investigation. And anchorman Dan Rather is in full agreement, he says.

"I do not believe that this is not a story," said Murphy. "But a lot of what I had seen really disturbed me. . . . I've seen lots of stories like this, and I will cover this story at some point, and I came close last night. But to me, it's, let's take a deep breath and say, 'What are we doing here?' "

Still, inside the shops churning out the day's stories, the question is, Why is CBS standing alone in not covering the story?

"I do not understand CBS' position," said a rival network news producer. "There's a U.S. congressman involved to some degree."

"I think they did it for strategic reasons," said Jerry Nachman, a frequent pundit on cable news shows and, most recently, executive producer of ABC's "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher." Nachman, who has also held executive positions in television and print news, added: "They did it to differentiate themselves. . . . This is the line they're drawing in the sand as to how they're different and above the fray."

Although 24-hour cable networks are built to inhale the story, the nightly national newscasts have differed in their approaches. ABC's "World News Tonight" covered the Condit apartment search Wednesday, while "Nightline," long respected in the news business, broadcast a timeline of the story later that night. NBC's "Nightly News," which led its newscast Wednesday with two stories, one on the Condit apartment search and another on the missing-persons investigation, has been the most aggressive, having devoted nearly a dozen stories to either Levy or Condit since mid-May.

"I'm completely comfortable with our coverage," said Steve Capus, executive producer of "Nightly News." "There's a tremendous amount of interest in this story, and there is an unsolved mystery. And that says to us, there's a real story here."

Developments in the investigation surrounding Levy's disappearance 10 weeks ago have been few. Failing hard facts, the story's momentum has largely been fueled by revelations involving Condit's alleged extramarital affairs, including one with Levy, which the congressman reportedly revealed to police during a third interview with investigators. Since then, two more alleged Condit affairs have come to light, one with flight attendant Anne Marie Smith, who gave cable's Fox News Channel two interviews.

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