August News Drought? Gary Condit to the Rescue

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The August doldrums: No news is not always good news

So Gary Condit wants to talk.

The California congressman who reportedly kept company with the missing intern will break his silence tonight at 10 p.m. ET on ABC in a live-to-tape, no-restrictions interview with the winner of the "get" sweepstakes, Connie Chung. (A nickel for Dan Rather's thoughts right now.) By Monday, similarly "candid" interviews with Condit will have appeared — at this writing — in national weeklies People and Newsweek, and on local television stations in his home district. Condit has also penned a letter to constituents, which arrived at the Modesto Post Office some time Wednesday afternoon. CNN's Bob Franken was on the scene describing his stolen glance at "The Document."

And all around the world, vacationing Washington journalists are grudgingly tuning in again, and wondering if this means they have to come home a week early. Because the annual August news drought is under siege again.

The dog days of news

August is when the politicians and journalists in Washington make a deal to leave town and take the news with them. Congressmen go on recess and head back to their home districts; the White House usually follows suit. And the big-time journalists and pundits that dutifully fill newspapers, magazines, cable channels and web sites with all that familiar Beltway blather have their best chance to skip town without missing too much. (Except for those so desperate to be on television that they won't even schedule a vacation.)

"In August, the news goes on vacation like everybody else," says New York magazine media critic Michael Wolff. "Washington especially, which accounts for most official news and probably half of all national news, is possibly the hottest place on earth in the summer, and anyone who is capable of making official news is certainly somewhere else. The media still work, but resentfully, and with lots of people out."

The unfortunates left behind to mind the store are left with scant new material to fill their daily or weekly slate. Print leans heavily on "evergreen" profiles, loosely pegged features, and shoe-leather research pieces like the New York Times' barrage of census stories. One of those landed so high on the page last week that Scott Shuger, longtime author of Slate's Today's Papers, dubbed it "an August news drought classsic." Television, meanwhile, scours the arid landscape for naturally sprouting (and hopefully telegenic) phenomena like the heat, sharks, or Al Gore's beard. On a good day, says Washington Post media maven Howard Kurtz, "they're hoping for a tropical storm that turns into a hurricane."

Is the rain coming?

But lately, the lonely August shift has been deluged with news. On Labor Day 1997 it was Princess Diana crumpling her car against a Paris tunnel wall. In 1998 it was the diligence of Ken Starr and the televising of Bill Clinton's "meaning of is" grand jury testimony. Everybody worked that month. In 1999 JFK, Jr. fell out of the sky in mid-July (and carried over well into August), and in 2000 there was the unnatural election that was just too close to let alone. (That one ruined Thanksgiving, too.)

For a while this August looked quiet. "This summer hasn't produced the usual drought, in part because the media has been fixated on Condit," Kurtz said. But without a corpse — or a word from the congressman — the saga had run up against its limits in May and June, and by August, added Kurtz, the doldrums had clearly set in. "You know things are slow when TV is replaying shark footage and the mere fact that the president is on vacation becomes an opportunity for endless media thumbsucking."

Meanwhile, the story that was keeping New York's own August skeleton crew awake — the economy — was actually suppressing news overall. When the Media Conglomerate needs to meet Wall Street's targets, its news divisions get the same flurry of pink slips and parachutes as everybody else. Especially when they're losing money. "In the face of the advertising slowdown, so many media outlets are cutting costs with layoffs and lower page counts," says Wolff, "that in a real way, we can't afford news this summer." Between the temporary vacations, the permanent ones and the cost-cutting, the resources with which news is produced were scarcer this August than ever before.

But now Gary Condit wants to talk.


Financially, of course, nothing would suit TV, print and Internet news outlets more than the Condit story really catching the public's fancy and turning into the cottage industry of Augusts past. But what makes an August explosion?

Maybe it's that true news — unofficial, unpredictable news — will always find a way. And maybe it's that the August shift is particularly eager for the material. Certainly those of us journalists that are working this August will have little problem with milking Gary Condit's reappearance for all it's worth.

"Acts of God, or exceptional news, are big in August because they have little competition from official news," says Wolff. "What's more, I've always thought that such news gets even bigger because one's colleagues who are working take particular delight in making colleagues who are not working come back from their vacations."

Ever wonder why the Diana crash was the coming-out party of the Internet as a news medium? It's because all the Web writers were underpaid company shlubs on three-day weekends if they were lucky — remember, this was before the bubble — and they were the first ones back to their desks when the news hit. And for the rest of the press, the message was clear: Leave town at your peril. We can fill in.

But it's doubtful Wolff will have to end his own vacation early. The Condit saga may not have the legs — not enough celebrity to be a Diana or a JFK, and not enough official status (namely, the presidency) to justify the high-toned hand-wringing that elevated impeachment. Of course, with its sinister twist — the still missing Levy — the Condit saga could still mutate into the ultimate in O.J.-Clinton unholy spawn. But that would take a corpse or a confession, and it's unlikely Rep. Gary Condit has arranged a three-day press blitz to offer either one of those.

Even if the New York Post was right Wednesday in pegging Chung's sit-down with Condit as "the most-watched show of the summer," any public stir could be short-lived when viewers figure out what Condit is up to: Just trying to dust himself off politically while he's got the stage all to himself.

Two or three days' news, tops. Oh well. Maybe next year.