By Ron VandenBoom
The media are once again under fire for the way it covers stories and the type of stories it covers, this time for its handling of the disappearance of Chandra Levy, a federal Bureau of Prison intern who was having an affair with U.S. Rep. Gary Condit.
It's certainly not new for the media to be criticized for stories it chooses to cover and the way it covers them. Coverage of Monica Lewinsky's dalliance with President Clinton received wide criticism because many believed it was "just about sex." On that occasion I supported the coverage because I believe Clinton lied to the American people and committed a crime by lying to a grand jury. On this occasion, however, I find myself siding more with the critics than with the media.
Certainly news that a congressman is being questioned in the disappearance of a missing intern, with whom he had an affair, is news and deserves to be reported. But 24-hour-a-day saturation coverage that rivals the Gulf War in intensity is much more than the story warrants. It just doesn't measure up on the yardstick of vital national issues.
President Bush's trip to Europe, the state of the nation's economy and what is being considered in the way of a new farm bill are far more critical to our national interest than the Condit story.
Unfortunately, the effect of such intense coverage has so tainted Condit with suspicion that it's unlikely he will be able to continue beyond this term as a congressman. A recent survey by Fox News Network indicates that more than 75 percent of respondents believe Condit had something to do with Levy's disappearance. Only 7 percent believe she has committed suicide and 6 percent believe a third party had something to do with her disappearance.
Considering that no charges have been leveled against Condit and police officials aren't calling him a suspect, the survey tells an amazing story of assumed guilt without evidence. Not even strong circumstantial evidence has been submitted to the media. The intense news coverage alone is responsible for the public's assumption.
While it's likely true that the massive amount of news coverage has prompted an equally massive investigation, it is also true that hundreds of other missing people, who do not make sensationalistic news, will only prompt a fraction of the response.
The Founding Fathers saw the media as the watchdog of government, a privately owned and independent security guard charged with the responsibility of protecting the people from the excesses of government. It was obvious to the founders that an unhindered press was one of the best ways to ensure people's liberties would not be usurped by the natural tendency of government to be tyrannical even in a democracy. They felt so strongly about the issue that they guaranteed freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
While few people would dispute that the press still has a duty to serve as the nation's watchdog, the combined pressures of competition and profit have strained the definition of what constitutes news. Unfortunately, these pressures can blur the line between responsible journalism and cheap sensationalism.
William Randolph Hearst was perhaps the king of sensationalistic journalism. Hearst, during the last half of the 19th century made a fortune publishing sensationalistic stories that broke all previously accepted journalistic rules and changed the scope of what news coverage was about. To Hearst, journalism was not a matter of providing the market with news, but of creating a market for the news he would provide. Titillation and half-truths were all a part of the mix. He was also one of the first publishers to carry ads in his papers.
Today editors and publishers struggle continually with the issue of what is news and what is sensationalism. The issue has become the two-headed curse of modern journalism, where all too often increasing revenue means stooping lower than the other guy.
Condit is just the latest victim of a ratings war out of control.