Media Beat: MEDIA MANIA OVER CONDIT SCANDAL GOES OVER THE TOP
by Norman Solomon
American Reporter Correspondent
WASHINGTON -- Like many other news items that have ballooned to huge nat= ional 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 ov= erdrive.
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 int= ern Chandra Levy.
Summertime ... and the titillating is easy. It's time to dish! Early t= his month, when flight attendant Anne Marie Smith appeared in a Fox News in= terview 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 C= handra" -- 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 e= rr on the side of too much. You've got to dive into it."
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 s= tory, 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 sh= e 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 p= rogramming 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 vi= sitor 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 a= ctions are of grave national import. With so many hours devoted to the stor= y 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 fa= ction, he has worked hard to move his colleagues rightward.
"Condit's conservative Blue Dog Coalition has gained stature in the Repu= blican-controlled House," the home district Fresno Bee reported in January = 2000. Days later, the newspaper explained: "With the GOP holding a slight m= ajority, the votes of conservative Democrats such as Condit are highly soug= ht."
George W. Bush offered his embrace. "When Condit cast one of the few Dem= ocratic votes for President Bush's budget and tax cut package," according t= o the San Jose Mercury News, "he was rewarded with a seat at Bush's table d= uring a celebration of the president's first 100 days in office."
To hear some bombastic media pros tell it, the Condit scandal is a cruci= al 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. "Thi= s is about honesty and cruelty," he proclaimed on his July 10 program. O'Re= illy 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 admin= istration operative who funneled weapons to the U.S.-backed Contra army whi= le it killed thousands of civilians in the Nicaraguan countryside. Who bett= er to discuss issues of "honesty and cruelty" and "the suffering of a famil= y"? O'Reilly did not mention his guest's murderous past.
North, who broke federal law with impunity while working in the White Ho= use, 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.