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14 July 2001

Our current howler (part III): How to tell a story

Synopsis: Linda Vester knew where she was going when it came to that thrilling phone call.

Commentary by Linda Vester, Mary Ann Norbom
The Edge, Fox News Channel, 7/6/01

D.C. Intern Lived On Edge of Secrecy
Donna St. George, Allan Lengel and Petula Dvorak, The Washington Post, 7/8/01

By now, you’ve heard it a thousand times. Chandra called her aunt with Big News. And what exactly was that news? It may just be that Chandra Levy now knew she was pregnant!!! It’s one of the Exciting Stories which pundits have pushed rather hard this past week. And Linda Vester was there at the start. On our leading sleaze show—Paula Zahn’s The Edge—guest host Vester talked a guest through the tale on July 6. Vester’s guest was Mary Ann Norbom, speculation queen from the tabloid Star:

VESTER: Mary Ann, let me start with you, because the one little piece of this from the message that Chandra Levy left for her aunt, this voice mail message, and at the tail end of that was, "I have something important. I have big news," or "I have something important to tell you." You guys have been working on a story that may be what that important news was about. What do you have?

NORBOM: Well, we’re still investigating. We have a—just a whole team of reporters and editors covering the country on this story, and there are a great many options to look into. It could be something to do with the congressman leaving his wife or Chandra thinking the congressman was going to leave his wife. It could be that Chandra was planning a new life with him. There could have been—there’s been some suggestions that there may have been a pregnancy or she thought she was pregnant.

Of course, it used to be that when you were "still investigating" a sensitive story, you didn’t go on TV and recite what "some suggestions" have been. But that was back when TV news was still occasionally run by journalists. Vester, like Zahn, has become a sleaze-master. As such, she was suitably thrilled:

VESTER: That’s where I’m going. I want to put a finer point on it, because she had apparently told her aunt that she kind of envisioned this future life with Gary Condit.

NORBOM: Planning a family with him, exactly.

VESTER: Right. And maybe have a baby in several years.

NORBOM: Right.

VESTER: Is there anything to that, or is that just—

NORBOM: We are still looking and looking very hard. But it certainly is an intriguing story, and she had something very important to tell her aunt the next day. For her to disappear like this just seems totally out of character.

It’s now become part of the press corps’ preferred tale. "She had something very important to tell her aunt the next day?" Hint, hint—she may have been pregnant! And that would provide an exciting reason for Condit to have her knocked off.

To help you understand your world, we thought you might want to take a look at where this "suggestion" came from. Is there any basis for this instant classic? The background to this treasured tale was described in last Sunday’s Washington Post. In a page one report, three writers recorded the musings of Levy’s aunt, Linda Zamsky, who lives in the Washington suburbs. In the article, Zamsky passed on Levy’s account of her affair with Condit.

But does the story, as published, support Norbom’s tale? Let’s review what the Post story said:

ST. GEORGE, LENGEL, DVORAK: Chandra Levy turned 24 on April 14, and she celebrated at the home of her godparents…

Barely a week later [on April 20], Levy found herself out of a job…

Levy’s last day [at the Bureau of Prisons], she was told, would be Monday, April 23—several months sooner than she expected. A month earlier, Levy had applied for an analyst job at the FBI, but she knew it would take weeks or months to hear back.

"It looks like my plans have suddenly changed," she wrote in an e-mail to her landlord April 28, saying she needed to break her lease. "I was just informed this week that my job appointment time is up so I am out of work."

A day later, Levy called her aunt and left a message on her answering machine. "I have some really big news…Call me," she said. [Post’s ellipsis]

The voice did not sound upset.

What was Levy’s Big News for her aunt? Judging from the Post report, she may have been calling her aunt, who lived in Maryland, to say that she would be leaving the area. Of course, it would be easy for scribes to check with Zamsky to see if she already knew that. Don’t bother checking the record, though—no one has bothered to ask. A passel of pundits—like sleaze-master Vester—have preferred to tell an exciting tale. "That’s where I’m going," Vester said. And she’s hoping to take you there with her.

Why did Levy call her aunt? At THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. Neither, of course, does Linda Vester. But Vester did know which "suggestion" she liked—and, of course, she knew something else. In fact, Vester knew the most important new thing. She knew How To Tell A (tabloid) Story.


The occasional update (7/14/01)

How to tell a story, part II: Bobbie Battista finally asked. On Thursday afternoon’s Talk Back Live, she was laboring through the usual waste-of-time topics, with all the standard shopworn debates. Is this really a "missing persons" case? Is Gary Condit really a "suspect?" Tiring perhaps of the endless semantics, she turned to Bob Franken at 3:19 and asked him an actual question:

BATTISTA: And Bob, why are we not hearing more from DC police on other people that they’re looking at in this investigation? Why are all the leaks about the congressman and why is so much information coming out about that and no one else?

Good question. And when Battista finally asked a good question, she got a remarkable answer.

Maybe Bob Franken was tired this day. Maybe Bob Franken was just off his game. Reporters normally know not to do this. For once, a scribe gave the straight poop:

FRANKEN (continuing directly): Because we’re not asking about those other people…

Remarkable! That, of course, is exactly why we’re only hearing about Gary Condit. Our pious pundits want to talk about sex—and Gary Condit had sex with a Washington intern! In the interest of keeping the chit-chat there, the press corps simply doesn’t ask about other possibilities which might be less entertaining.

Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t know what happened to Levy. Neither, of course, do the pundits. But we thought Franken’s full answer gave quite a look at the way the press corps has been working. This is how the press corps works when they want to keep the focus on sex:

FRANKEN: Because we’re not asking about those other people. Obviously the news media attention has been on the activities of Congressman Condit. That’s why there is so much interest in what really comes down to just another missing persons case…But for the record, they have interviewed well over 100 people now. Some of them, they say, as investigators, they have paid more attention to than the congressman. They say over and over the congressman is not a suspect. They have, we are able to report, offered polygraph possibilities to at least three of the people they’re investigating. They haven’t gone on to tell us whether they’ve actually administered those tests. So yes, there are many, many other people that are the focus of this investigation. The one that we have cared about as you have seen is Gary Condit.

Amazing, isn’t it? According to Franken, police have investigated many, many people; "some of them, they say, as investigators, they have paid more attention to than the congressman!" And why don’t you know about those other people? Because they’re not "the one we have cared about!" Why is there no information about these people? "Because we’re not asking about those other people," Franken remarkably says.

Can Franken possibly mean what he says? He describes complete journalistic corruption. Pundits piously tell us, day after day, that this is all about finding Chandra. Franken tells us something different. Franken says what you may have known—for the press corps, this is really all about finding Anne Marie Smith.

Can Franken possibly mean what he says? You’ll never find out from Bobbie Battista. She said, "All right, Bob Franken, thank you for joining us," and went on to a completely new topic.


Commentary by Bobbie Battista, Bob Franken
Talk Back Live, CNN, 7/12/01