< Twice Told Tale?

Transcript

Friday, July 25, 2008

BOB GARFIELD:
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Join me now, won't you, for a journey back in time, back to a simpler summer when America was not at war, Osama bin Laden was not a household name and the media’s attention surplus disorder was focused on shark attacks and the disappearance of a young Washington intern.
[CLIP]
KATIE COURIC:
Today marks four weeks since Chandra Levy, the young woman working as an intern in Washington, D.C., was last seen.
[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:
Yes, the story of Chandra Levy, a still unsolved murder that inspired one of the great media circuses of all time.
[CLIPS]
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:
Meanwhile, police were going to hear more details from Representative Gary Condit. Investigators plan to interview the congressman tonight.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:
You know, it’s probably grossly unfair to this congressman. I mean, there’s an awful lot of attention on him at this point. We simply don't know, but the relationship does at least appear bizarre.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:
May I ask you, was it a sexual relationship?
[END CLIPS]
BOB GARFIELD:
Suspicion fell on Condit, who was married, Levy’s boss and more than twice her age. He didn't help his own case much. He misled the police, lied to the public and provoked suspicion when he was caught disposing of a box that once contained a Tag Heuer watch in an out of the way dumpster. Ultimately, D.C. police declared that the congressman was not a suspect.

Okay, let's return to the present day. This weekend, The Washington Post wraps up a controversial 12 part series on the murder of Chandra Levy. Among the reasons it’s controversial, if you didn't remember that Gary Condit was exonerated, you were left wondering about his innocence until the very last installment of the series.

Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor for investigations at The Post oversaw the series, and he joins me now. Jeff, welcome to On the Media.
JEFF LEEN:
Thank you, Bob. It’s good to be here.
BOB GARFIELD:
Is this a new form for The Post?
JEFF LEEN:
A new form for the print Post. We did try a serial like this but it ran online only. It was called “Citizen K Street,” about a lobbyist. But we've had some remarkable series over the years — the Cheney series, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, a recent nine part series we did on farm subsidies. But I have to say that the readership for the Levy series has been another order of magnitude.

You know, we're hearing from lots and lots of people who say, I'm reading every word, I can't wait for the next chapter. And that’s something that ordinarily doesn't happen with even our best investigative series.

BOB GARFIELD:
There are some new developments, particularly insofar as questions about missed investigative opportunities at the time of the crime, but much of the series is reiteration. What is the news value that drove the decision to put so many resources into this serial?
JEFF LEEN:
There are a lot of new revelations and new facts that we're printing about this story that nobody has read before. Also, first and foremost, this is a police accountability story and a press accountability story.

It’s an examination of how a police force that’s had trouble historically with homicide investigations, went awry on this one in some particular areas and overlooked some promising leads, lost time, had internal squabbles and made mistakes, which is, you know, it’s important to all of us, the performance of our police department on the most serious crime there is, which is homicide.

And also it’s a story about how the luridness of the story, the fact that a congressman was involved with a young intern, created an enormous press interest in this, and the press interest, to a certain extent, drove and distorted what the police were trying to do.

And the press wrote many, many, many stories about this and got many of them wrong. Now you can read the facts and you can finally understand what really happened and how it happened, how pressures led to mistakes. At the end of it all, an opportunity to catch a killer was lost.
BOB GARFIELD:
As to your assertion that this is first and foremost a series about police accountability and press accountability, I can't buy that. To me, it’s first and foremost, a whodunit. It’s spun out in a kind of true crime format that reminds me of nothing so much as, you know, Court TV. Do you think that’s unfair?
JEFF LEEN:
People have told us it reads like a mystery novel, and I wouldn't disagree with that at all. But I wouldn't have wanted to do a story that was just that. We knew from our own information that serious mistakes had been made here, that the mistakes had not been aired and that the investigation got very close and didn't complete.

And so we wanted to go back into that and really explore that in depth. And we believe that by the end of it, you'll know everything the police know about this case.
BOB GARFIELD:
One of the most explosive criticisms came from within your own organization. Metro reporter Robert Pierre believes that the story is fundamentally racist, by virtue of focusing on the death of one young white woman seven years ago in a city where 200 some African Americans are murdered every year with very little investigation by The Washington Post.

Now, obviously, one response to that is that none of those 200 murders a year involve a U.S. congressman. But what have you told Robert Pierre to mollify him or to change his view?

JEFF LEEN:
I just basically disagree with what he’s saying in a very fundamental way. We've done plenty of investigations involving African American victims. In the year 2000, I edited a four part series involving three reporters, called “Fatal Flaws,” and it was a look at problems with homicide investigation in the District of Columbia.

We looked at 337 cases, and 99 percent of those were African American victims. That was a very hard hitting series that put in every ounce of effort and resources that we put in on Chandra Levy.

We’ve looked at child deaths in the District in 2001. Almost all of those cases were African American victims. We looked at the juvenile justice system in 2003 and it was the same thing.

So we go where the facts lead us, and sometimes we write about characters and victims who are white and sometimes we write about characters and victims who are African American. So I just have to reject the criticism that what we're doing here is somehow racist.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, let me ask you about a very different kind of criticism, and that is a question of fairness to, of all people, Gary Condit. We're speaking on Wednesday, and, at least as of today’s episode, the story continues to leave open the question of Condit’s culpability. If you know that a man is not guilty, is there not a sense of basic fairness that compels you to disclose that rather than leave the question open for 12 days?
JEFF LEEN:
I think careful readers knew by the middle of the series that Gary Condit wasn't the guy. We decided to tell the story in a particular way. You've got to lay out the evidence. You've got to lay out the step by step process.

Gary Condit has waited seven years for somebody to go back in this and really explore his role and find out he’s been unfairly thought of in this case for all this time. And we've done that.
BOB GARFIELD:
I'm just curious whether you've heard from Condit, his lawyer or anyone in his camp to say, what’s the deal? When are you letting me off the hook for this thing? Do I have to go through this nightmare again seven years after the fact?
JEFF LEEN:
We've heard from them, but they haven't raised that point. You know, like I said, I think that it’s a more credible story to lay out the evidence and let the reader come to that decision, than try to browbeat them with trust us, this is what we found, believe it, because, you know, we're basing it on documents or interviews.
BOB GARFIELD:
Considering what The Post and many other major newspapers are going through right now retaining audience and trying to stay profitable, I fear that this is a kind of pandering to our basest morbid curiosity, as opposed to your assertion that it’s about demanding accountability from official sources and from the media itself. Are you confident that this is not a step onto a slippery slope of yellower and yellower journalism?
JEFF LEEN:
This was an attempt to see if we can use a new form of storytelling to engage readers. You know, newspapers everywhere need to engage readers. If we continue to do things the way we've always done them, then the business will die in place. We have to innovate. We have to reach readers and we have to engage with them.

And if that means experimenting with new forms, trying things different occasionally, then I think we have to do that. I mean, I don't think we have a choice to keep doing the same thing the same way we've always done it.
BOB GARFIELD:
Okay Jeff, thank you so much for coming on.
JEFF LEEN:
Sure thing.
BOB GARFIELD:
Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor for investigations at The Washington Post oversaw the paper’s 12 part series on the murder of Chandra Levy.