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30 August 2001

Our current howler (part IV): An ugly, dirty business

Synopsis: Where did the pregnancy rumor begin? The source is clear: "Levy investigators."

Timothy Burger and Helen Kennedy, The New York Daily News, 7/6/01

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

Commentary by Bob Schieffer, Abbe Lowell
Face the Nation, CBS, 7/8/01

Commentary by Juan Williams
Special Report, Fox News Channel, 7/11/01

Timothy Burger and Helen Kennedy, The New York Daily News, 7/13/01

Niles Lathem and Steve Dunleavy, The New York Post, 7/13/01

Commentary by John Walsh
Meet the Press, CBS, 7/15/01

Commentary by Lee Cowen, Billy Martin, Jane Clayson, Kim Peterson
Early Show, CBS, 7/13/01

Commentary by Alan Colmes, Sean Hannity, Pat Shipp
Hannity & Colmes, Fox News Channel, 7/12/01

Where did the pregnancy rumor begin? The source is clear: "Levy investigators." On July 6, Tim Burger and Helen Kennedy were discussing the case in the New York Daily News. The reporters described some new information—the message Chandra left on her aunt’s answering machine back on April 29:

BURGER AND KENNEDY (7/6): Meanwhile, The News has learned that on April 29, Levy left a message on her aunt’s machine saying, "I have big news."

"She didn’t sound downtrodden. She sounded like she had something exciting to tell," said a source close to the family.

That’s how Chandra’s aunt, Linda Zamsky, has described Levy’s mood on the message that day. Then the reporters made the press corps’ first-ever reference to the notion that Chandra might be pregnant:

BURGER AND KENNEDY (continuing directly): Investigators working for the Levy family believe it’s a major clue and are looking at the possibility she could have been killed to silence her about something she had learned.

"The big news might be what got her killed. Maybe she found out something," said the source close to the Levy family.

Investigators are also considering the possibility that Levy, 24, could have been pregnant, though no testing kit was found in her apartment.

Thus was born a speculation that helped drive the coverage all through the summer. The speculation ran like this: Chandra’s "big news" might have been the fact that she was pregnant. And she might have been killed—by Gary Condit—to silence her about this big news.

Repeat—this article was the first presentation of the theory that Levy might have been pregnant. To whom was the speculation attributed? To a clear source: "Investigators working for the Levy family" were the source of this thrilling new tale. The record makes it abundantly clear; the Levy team was the original source of the speculation that Chandra was pregnant.

It didn’t take long for the story to spread. That night, the tabloid Star’s Mary Ann Norboom appeared on The Edge, welcomed by guest host Linda Vester. In the first of many disgraceful performances by the newly rank tabloid program, Vester was eager to let her guest, Norboom, speculate a little bit more:

VESTER (7/6): 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.

Really! There’s been some suggestions! Next morning, Burger and Kennedy were at it again, repeating their claim that "investigators working for the Levy family" were "considering the possibility that Levy, 24, could have been pregnant." And by the next day, a big fish was landed. Bob Schieffer took the swirling rumors onto the Sunday morning stage. Abbe Lowell was his Face the Nation guest, and Schieffer popped the big question:

SCHIEFFER (7/15): Do you know if she’s pregnant?

LOWELL: Do I know if she’s pregnant? I have no idea of this—the nature of Chandra Levy’s condition. I all—I certainly know the questions the police asked the congressman. I know his answers. And we’re not getting into that.

How does rumor drive our discourse? During this first weekend in July, we saw how easy the process can be. First, "Levy investigators" breathed a few words in the ears of Burger and Kennedy. Two days later, there the tale was, being bruited on one of the press corps’ great stages. On Tuesday, June 10, Billy Martin, the Levys’ lawyer, appeared on CBS Early Show. Does the family know if Chandra was pregnant? he was asked. "We do know the answer," Martin said, three times—though he declined to say what the answer was.

Such speculations are irresistible to the press corps’ most hapless performers. Listen, for example, to egregious Juan Williams, on the July 11 Special Report. According to guest host Tony Snow, some critics of the press were saying, "Look, all you’re trying to do is expose this guy’s personal life for salacious public interest." Williams said they could just shove it

WILLIAMS (7/11): That’s exactly what they say, but they don’t know about a politician who maybe turns up with a girlfriend who’s pregnant, who’s threatening the marriage, the wife is coming that weekend. These are things we all know now we did not know a few days ago. Imagine the pressure—the psychological pressure. And could that have brought out an aspect of his character that maybe other people hadn’t seen previously?

It was pure, rank speculation—speculation that Condit had "maybe" committed a murder. Like other weak-minded Washington pundits, Williams now asked his colleagues to "imagine" certain things; he talked about things "we all know now," while putting a "maybe" inside it. From this point on, speculation about Chandra’s pregnancy would drive a good deal of the summer’s discussion. And a review of the reporting makes it quite clear—the rumors and speculation about the pregnancy began in the Levy camp.

THIS PROCESS CAN ONLY SEEM STARTLING NOW because of Judy Bachrach’s recent reporting. Bachrach is writing an article on the disappearance for Vanity Fair. Last Friday, she announced on the Today show that Mrs. Levy has told her that Chandra wasn’t pregnant when she disappeared on May 1. (Bachrach later said the same thing on The Edge; see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/29/01). What had Mrs. Levy told Bachrach? The Levys spent Passover with Chandra in mid-April, and Chandra had her period then.

Unless Bachrach has made some horrible mistake, this revelation is truly remarkable. It means that all through July and August—when pundits were saying that Condit killed Chandra because she was pregnant—the Levys knew that it just wasn’t so, and chose to say nothing about it. This apparent silence is even more startling when one limns the source of the pregnancy rumor. It was the Levys’ own investigators who started this story—at a time when the Levys may have known that the story was false. If Judy Bachrach’s report is accurate, this is a dirty, repulsive business, one the press corps needs to sort out—although they’ll be doing it far, far too late.

The sorting won’t be easy. Indeed, a review of the Levy’s statements about Chandra’s pregnancy reveals a welter of conflicting presentations, in which various family members and reps, on and off the record, made inconsistent statements. By the weekend of July 13-15, Levy lawyer Martin had changed his own statement; he now told Tim Russert that the family wasn’t sure whether Chandra was pregnant (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/28/01), and lapdog Russert didn’t ask why he’d said otherwise just five days before. But Martin was only one source of confusion. On Friday, July 13, for example, Burger and Kennedy reported new info. In the final paragraph of a Daily News story, the scribes offered this new report:

BURGER AND KENNEDY (7/13): Despite reports to the contrary, two sources close to the Levy family said they are certain Levy was not pregnant. Neither would say how they could be sure, but Levy celebrated her birthday with relatives April 14 and may have mentioned having her period.

This seems to be the same story which Bachrach now attributes, by name, to Mrs. Levy. But did Burger’s "two sources" include Mrs. Levy? In public, Dr. and Mrs. Levy were telling a different story. That Saturday night (July 14), the Levys appeared on America’s Most Wanted; host John Walsh asked about the pregnancy speculation. We don’t know who told Burger and Kennedy that Chandra was, for certain, not pregnant. But that isn’t what the Levys told Walsh. On Friday morning, the New York Post was already describing their interview:

LATHEM AND DUNLEAVY (7/13): Chandra’s parents, Robert and Susan Levy, told the Fox network’s "America’s Most Wanted" that although some reports say their daughter may have been pregnant when she vanished, they have no evidence that’s true.

If she was expecting, her parents say, they would have welcomed the news.

Did the Mrs. Levy know that Chandra wasn’t pregnant, as Bachrach now reports? If so, the Levys’ statement to Walsh was an artful evasion—technically accurate, but wildly misleading. They were, of course, instantly praised for their candor. Here, for example, was Walsh himself, on that Sunday’s Meet the Press:

WALSH (7/15): This family is going through incredible pain, and they’re very, very brave. And you know what? To come on last night and be so candid and deal with the question of possible pregnancy. Mom said, "You know what? We talked to her about that. We told her she could come home if she was pregnant." Dad said, "Would you ever have an abortion?" She said, "No, I wouldn’t have an abortion." This is a loving, caring family. But you know what? I walked in their shoes. The not knowing is the worst. And the focus has to be on the fact that Chandra Levy is missing, and there has to be a parallel investigation. They cannot rule out anybody, and they have to keep looking at everybody, besides Gary Condit not coming forward.

But, if Bachrach’s new report is accurate, the Levys weren’t in fact "being so candid, and they could have ruled out the pregnancy factor—as Burger’s anonymous family sources were trying to do at this time. Meanwhile, the Levys’ lawyer, Billy Martin, was constantly stirring the pot. Here’s an excerpt from the July 13 CBS Early Show, with Lee Cowen reporting from Washington:

COWEN (7/13): Still, for the family, speculation continues to swirl around whether Levy might have been pregnant, fueled in part by their attorney’s refusal to deny it.

(Videotape) UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can you put that to rest for us right here, right now?

MARTIN: There’s nothing I can put to rest. This investigation remains wide open, and we're going to consider looking into any and all leads.

And it wasn’t just Martin who was "refusing to put the speculation to rest." Later in that broadcast, Jane Clayson interviewed Kim Peterson, from the Sund/Carrington Foundation. Peterson was working with the family on the search for Chandra:

CLAYSON (7/13): As you know, Ms. Peterson, Billy Martin, the Levy family attorney, has not denied allegations that Chandra was pregnant at the time of her disappearance. Do her parents believe she was?

PETERSON: Her parents don’t believe she was, but nothing can be ruled out at this point. They had not seen her for—since the middle of April, and I would say that only Chandra would be the one—she’s the only one that could answer that for sure.

If Bachrach’s reporting is accurate, Peterson’s wasn’t. The pregnancy rumor could almost surely have been "ruled out"—as the two "sources close to the Levy family" were telling Burger and Kennedy.

WHY MIGHT THE LEVYS HAVE HEDGED THE TRUTH? The family’s PR strategy has been widely discussed; they have wanted to keep the case in the news, and the way to do that is by linking to Condit. The pregnancy rumor greatly fueled suspicion that Condit had been involved in a murder. After all, absent pregnancy, it’s a bit hard to see why Condit would have wanted Levy killed. To state the obvious, Condit knew there were extensive phone records directly linking him to Levy. Was he trying to keep his affair a secret? As soon as Chandra disappeared, it became highly likely that the affair would come out. This, by the way, is a painfully obvious point which we have never seen stated on cable.

Were Martin and the Levys telling less than they knew? If so, they engaged in a truly repugnant, dirty business. The greatest blame must go to Martin, of course. He is not the parent, and therefore is free from the Levys’ emotional turmoil. Most important, Martin is an officer of the court. If his conduct here has been what it seems, the court should perhaps be disturbed.

But it’s the "press corps" which makes all this conduct possible—if you still want to call our scribes that. There was absolutely no evidentiary basis—none at all—for the pregnancy rumor in the first place, but Schieffer rushed it center stage, and one week later, Russert was letting Martin change his story without even one question asked. As early as July 12, William Safire was asking if Chandra was pregnant in his syndicated New York Times column; again, this was pure speculation. But on the lower levels of our "press corps," the chimp-like behavior was simply astounding. One performance must be noted; a truly disgraceful outing by Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes on their July 12 Fox News Channel program. What were the life forms "debating" this night? "Explosive new allegations from the National Enquirer about Chandra Levy and California congressman Gary Condit," Colmes said. He welcomed Pat Shipp of the Enquirer to share the rag’s latest corrupt fantasies:

COLMES: What can you tell us about the story breaking in your publication tomorrow about the allegations that Chandra Levy was pregnant?

SHIPP: Well, we got some really excellent sources inside the Justice Department, and they shared with us that they were confident that she is, indeed, pregnant. They got that from their sources, family members and friends, who told them that Chandra told—you know, shared that information with them before she disappeared.

The Enquirer, of course, was totally wrong, despite those "really excellent sources." But Hannity and Colmes took turns this night falling down in praise of the paper. At one point, Hannity just couldn’t hold it in any longer:

HANNITY: You know, I’ve noticed the National Enquirer recently, in particular, has broken a lot of big stories. Now, when you think of the size of the newsrooms of the big three—ABC, NBC, CBS—and they get beat time and again by the National Enquirer, and yet some people maybe dismiss the newspaper, how does that make you feel, when—especially in light of the fact you’ve broken so many big stories?

Modestly, Shipp passed on the chance to slam the dumb majors. "Well, you can’t be concerned with what other people say when the proof is in the pudding," she said. "I mean, you know, if we’re still breaking stories, what difference does it make what anybody else says?" On Hannity & Colmes, quiet satisfaction in a job well done would stand in for any vile gloating. Later in this disgraceful program, more wild speculation ensued. One guest painted the latest wild picture, suggesting that Mrs. Condit had murdered Chandra (she might have found her in Condit’s apartment and killed her). "You know, that’s a good point," the dimwit Ann Coulter enthused.

IS JUDY BACHRACH’S REPORTING ACCURATE? IF SO, the Levys—and especially their lawyer, Billy Martin—have engaged in a dirty business. For two months, they have let a person be accused of murder on a basis which they knew was untrue. And of course, they failed to come forward with all that they knew, "possibly impeding the search for Chandra." How often have we heard that phrase piously pleaded when a different person was accused of withholding?

But don’t worry—your "press corps" is a group of well-trained puppies. Bachrach’s report has been disappeared, never mentioned one time since last Friday. As of this morning, Lexis still says it’s true—no newspaper has mentioned what Bachrach said, nor has a single cable pundit. This summer, the rumor of pregnancy—completely unbased—was shouted about by excited, pleased pundits. But the refutation, sourced by name to Chandra’s own mother, has disappeared without a trace. On cable, we promise, there won’t be a search—and no one will make the slightest effort to explain where this pregnancy rumor first came from. The Levys’ story fit the novel—the tale the cable corps wanted to tell. Your "press corps" hands you novels, not news. And they protect those people who give them their pleasing stories—even stories that don’t quite rank as "true."

Tomorrow: A sequel on the work of your "press corps"

A speculation: Obviously, we don’t know who told Burger and Kennedy that Chandra wasn’t pregnant—that she had "mentioned having her period" in April. They reporters cited "two sources close to the Levy family." This could have been the Levys themselves. It could have been Chandra’s aunt and uncle, who would have had knowledge about the April family gathering. Presumably, it could even have been friends of Chandra’s; on the July 16 Rivera Live, Geraldo Rivera said that former FBI agent Clint Van Zandt "told us that he spoke with a close friend of Chandra’s who insisted she was not pregnant at the end of April, having gotten her, her period at that time." Of course, Van Zandt’s "close friend" may have been a relative, too. At any rate, this was a rare disclaimer, never mentioned again on Rivera. Disclaimers tend to wind up like that.


The Daily update (8/30/01)

In search of the no-ID story: The pregnancy rumor was initiated by "Levy investigators," presumably to keep the story exciting for news orgs. Was the no-ID rule an invention, too? We discussed its origins yesterday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/29/01), and we mentioned the fact that no one seems to have mentioned this rule in any original, first-person statements. That includes Chandra’s aunt, Linda Zamsky, to whom the story is now often sourced. (Let us state again our admiration for Zamsky’s intelligence and fairness. In her interviews, she has constantly noted the points at which her knowledge ends.)

In early July, Zamsky gave a detailed, written statement to news orgs about her conversations with Chandra. Yesterday, we were having trouble raising the statement on the newly malfunctioning; an alert reader sent us to the Fresno Bee instead. Here is the section discussing the secrecy rules, which include no mention of the alleged "no-ID" stricture. Alas! It isn’t clear if the ellipses are edits, or represent Zamsky’s original punctuation. If you want to read the entire statement, you know what to do; just click here:

ZAMSKY: I said, "Well, what do you guys do, if it’s such a secret, what do you guys do?" And she said, "Well, most of the time, because he’s so busy in his job and his political career, that he ... you know, he goes to a lot of dinners, a lot of luncheons, a lot of benefits, he just ... when we’re together, we just like to hang out at his place and be together, and we can cook in or we’ll go get a bite to eat and we go out." I said, "Well, how do you go out if it’s such a secret?" and she said they would take a taxi ... she would come out the door, grab the taxi, and then he would come out, baseball cap, jacket, kind of a little incognito, and he would get in the cab with her. I said, "Well, wasn’t he afraid that the cabby was going to, you know, know who he was?" and she said no, she said they didn’t do a lot of talking in the cab, they kept everything very, you know, quiet.

And these were the rules, these were rules that she had to follow for this relationship to be flow and to be all right. He wanted, you know ... no one could know about this. She ... I mean, when she told me his name, she was really ... I mean, I made real light of it and I kind of dummied up because I wanted her to feel comfortable, I didn’t want her to be a nervous wreck talking about her boy friend. Obviously, I was one of the few people that she ... one or maybe a few people that she could talk to about this, so I wanted her to feel comfortable.

"When she would go to his apartment ... she also told me this at Thanksgiving, she would go in, go into the elevator, and if someone was in the elevator or got in the elevator with her she was to push another floor. She could not get off that floor. If someone asked her, "Oh, you look new in the building," or, "Did you just move in?" she would say, "No, I’m not new here, I’m visiting a sick friend."

So these are all little details that she had worked out with him, that kind of, you know, really shows how serious this relationship was and how serious it was that it had to remain a secret.

The Modesto Bee site is working better today, but the Bee seems to have killed the archive of stories on the Levy disappearance they had sensibly maintained until now.