Chandra and Gary — and the Predatory Media

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The movie version of Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly Last Summer" has Katharine Hepburn quavering a haughty, mad soliloquy about herself and her unwholesome son Sebastian.

"All summer long," Hepburn says, "it was Violet and Sebastian! Sebastian and Violet!"

Interminably this summer, all summer long, it is Chandra and Condit! Condit and Chandra!

Fox News sent me off to bed with the urgent information that Washington D.C. police, scouring Rock Creek Park, have found an old license plate. A few days ago, surrounded by camera crews swarming through the underbrush, a cop found a dog bone!

All through the '90s there flowed a rich and gaudy stream of sensational stories that were providentially suited to the purposes of 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week cable television news. They were the tabloid equivalent of war — that is, in the absence of world-historical events or the fall of empires, they filled the news hole, they fed the many-headed media beast. Once the Soviet Union and the Cold War were gone, we have had Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, the O.J. Simpson case, Waco, Oklahoma City, the death of Princess Diana, Colombine, the Icarus descent of John Kennedy Jr, Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Elian Gonzalez, and much, much more.

The stories have shared certain characteristics. To start with the crass and crucial point, they have almost all been cheap to cover. A TV news operation is not going to burn a lot of budget posting a correspondent and camera crew outside the Miami relatives' house, waiting to catch little Elian on the jungle gym. Minimal expenses are an important point at a time when the business of journalism has pretty much been absorbed (by acquisitions and mergers) into vast corporate organisms that tend to see journalism in terms of entertainment product and bottom line.

But beyond being mostly cheap to cover, the stories have been riveting human drama, with widely varying degrees of historical importance. Who would say the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court was not historically important? All right, but what was the historical importance of a "pubic hair on a Coke can?"

There's something grimly funny about the fact that the news coverage of the Chandra Levy disappearance, and of the still unfolding, formerly private life of Representative Condit, has itself become an issue. CBS' Dan Rather — acting from old-fashioned journalistic principle and also, it may be, from a touch of what might be called artful self-righteousness — has rather grandly declined, for the most part, to cover the Levy-Condit business, on grounds it is essentially a non-story that has been disgustingly sensationalized by the media.

It is not a non-story, of course. It is not news on the scale of, say, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk or the Tet offensive, but we will have to redefine the word news if we say that the disappearance of a United States Congressman's mistress, and her possible murder (by whom? by him?), does not merit some notice in the media.

The real objection is to the obsessive way the news is pursued — through the activation of the mouth-frothing, feed-me, feed-me, 24-7 omnivore. Television news has become a sleek, conscienceless predator that works the family beaches and devours everything — high history, low scandal, license plates, dog bones, your private life if you are unlucky enough to fall into the maw. Who would want to be famous in this society?

Pollsters like Andrew Kohut are now putting this spin on sensational news: The public doesn't really want to read about it — doesn't really pay that much attention, for example, to the Chandra Levy-Gary Condit story. This argument suggests that Americans are much more high-minded than the drooling, cynical media seem to assume. The theory flatters our self-esteem.

On the other hand, consider this. America comprises a diverse, centrifugal democracy that is both morally and culturally chaotic. Can it be that these stories — these great gossip items —are what we have in common? Are they the exemplary tales through which we sort out and dramatize and universalize our values?

Around the dinner tables I've sat at lately, absolutely no one declined, in the Kohut mode, to talk about Chandra Levy and Gary Condit. Almost all criticized Chandra's family for their weirdly non-judgmental and even coyly receptive reaction when they learned young Chandra was having an affair with a much older, married Congressman. Not the way for parents to behave! Condit himself is, of course, a source of endless speculation. Is he himself a victim? Or a monster?

Can it be that the slavering media are instruments in a larger sociobiology that replicates, on a national (or even international) scale, the gossip dynamics of a village? Gossip — however vicious, obsessive, and intrusive — has always served an important community function. The stories work as parables, forms of instruction, universal metaphors. (What, God help us, does the parable of O.J. Simpson instruct our children about justice?)

Of course, the vicious intrusiveness of small-town gossips has also been an oppression — and the traditional reason why small-town people with talent and brains have fled to the big city.