Jewish World Review July 26, 2001 / 6 Menachem-Av, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

Summer of Chandra: An international traveler's perspective -- WHAT? America is still talking about Chandra Levy?

Yes, almost three months after the 24-year-old intern was last seen in her health club at the end of April, the story still seems to be holding my television hostage.

The all-news cable television channels in particular seem to be saying, OK, folks, if you don't do something more interesting, we're never going to stop reporting this story.

This story, as they say in Hollywood, has "legs." It just keeps on running --- and not only in this country. One of my first sights after a recent 15-hour flight to Johannesburg was the by-now-familiar face of Chandra Levy smiling back at me from the front pages of southern Africa's largest newspapers.

Surely, I thought, the Chandra story will either have a major breakthrough (her speedy and safe return, I hoped, although that hope was fading) or just go away by the time I would return two weeks later.

After all, this is the summer of the stem cell research debate, the proposed patients' bill of rights, the G-8 summit and the Kyoto global warming treaty. Really big stories, right? But, no, the Chandra story is capturing imaginations, talk shows and cable television news channels in ways that mundane affairs like superpower summits can't match.

It may not be as gripping as the O.J. Simpson story, the Elian Gonzalez saga or the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, according to a recent survey. But the missing-intern story does not have to be as gripping as the O.J. drama to capture widespread attention this summer.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press finds only 16 percent of Americans "very interested" in the story, compared to 48 percent for O.J. and 36 percent for Clinton-Lewinsky.

The coverage has been driven not by public interest, Andrew Kohut, the center's director, recently wrote, but by audience-hungry cable news channels that need only a thin slice of the viewing public to gain a ratings advantage.

He has a point, but I'm not sure I believe the polls when they say most people don't care about this story. I have heard people complain about the attention the Levy story has received, even as they sound like they can't get enough of it.

"I'm so sick and tired of hearing about Chandra Levy," my neighborhood pharmacist said, just before she asked, wide-eyed, "By the way, just between you and me, do you think he did it?"

"He," of course, is U.S. Rep. Gary Condit, 53, the Modesto, Calif., Democrat who admitted in his third police interview that, yes, he and Levy had an affair while his wife was back home in Modesto.

Condit is the man who everyone seems to suspect, despite District of Columbia police assurances that he is not a suspect. It's not even quite clear what we should suspect him of, since we don't know what happened to Levy.

I hated to disappoint my pharmacist, but I didn't want to play that game. I'd already been playing it at the office, along with a bunch of other people who claimed to be getting tired of the story.

"He must have done something," my wife says, speaking for multitudes. "Look at those eyes."

Right. Unlike police and prosecutors, television viewers don't need to let facts get in the way of a juicy story.

That air of mystery only fuels the fires that have made this the "Summer of Chandra," in the words of a Page One headline on the District's free weekly City Paper.

The page resembled posters for "Summer of Sam," Spike Lee's movie take on the "Son of Sam" murders that terrorized New York City in the summer of 1977.

In the "Summer of Chandra," by comparison, the nation finds itself drawn into a national parlor game. It's a puzzle not only over "Who done it," but also over "What happened?" A mystery writer could hardly come up with more compelling clues, characters or behavior - and in the nation's No. 1 center of political intrigue, no less.

If Condit thought he could make this story go away by ducking the questions shouted at him by the media feeding frenzy, he was, as some young Californians like to say, way mistaken. His avoidance of media questions has only encouraged the unsettling feeling nationwide that he has something to hide.

Chandra's parents, Susan and Robert, have been more fortunate than most parents of missing children. If all missing persons received this much attention, news media would have no room left for any other news. More news coverage means more eyes and ears are looking for their daughter. But the Levys can also thank Congressman Condit's puzzling behavior for that. The "Summer of Chandra" would not have been the same without him.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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