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Howard Kurtz: Media coverage of missing intern

Chandra Levy
Chandra Levy, who has not been seen since April 30  

Howard Kurtz, host CNNís Reliable Sources, reports from Washington on how the media covered the disappearance of intern Chandra Levy.

Question from chat room: Why is Chandra Levy getting all this media attention when there are thousands of missing U.S. citizens around America?

Howard Kurtz: The press is going wild over the Chandra story because of her alleged romantic entanglement with Congressman Gary Condit. Before the Condit connection surfaced, the Washington Post and other papers kissed off the story with just a few paragraphs. But now that police are trying to find out more about this young intern's relationship with a member of Congress, the story has mushroomed into a full-blown Washington mystery. It's fueled in part by the Congressman's continuing silence.


CNN Moderator: What parts are Levy's parents playing in this story?

Howard Kurtz: Chandra Levy's parents really boosted their daughter's disappearance onto the media's radar screen, with help from an outfit that helps publicize missing-persons cases. That got them booked on CBS' early show. Since then, they've done interviews on all the cable news networks, understandably concerned and anguished over their daughter's disappearance. Television needs pictures, and since Chandra is not around, and Condit isn't talking, the parents, who are back in Washington right now, have really helped drive this story, and keep it in the news.

Question from chat room: Is there any real evidence whatsoever to suggest foul play and, if not, is it appropriate for the media to keep dwelling on this?

Howard Kurtz: While there's no evidence of foul play at the moment, something really happened to this woman seven weeks ago. Police haven't ruled out suicide, although they consider that possibility unlikely. Keep in mind that Chandra Levy had packed her bags, and was ready to return to California after her internship ended when she vanished without a trace. This seemingly inexplicable mystery is what has driven much of the media attention, along with the Lewinsky-like specter of another young woman from California involved with an older politician.

Question from chat room: Why is Congressman Condit not speaking up? What does he have to gain from keeping silent?

Howard Kurtz: Excellent question. Condit's refusal to speak publicly -- just yesterday he was chased down a long staircase by a group of reporters -- has unfortunately fueled suspicions that he has something to hide. It may well be that the Congressman was having an affair but knows absolutely nothing about Chandra's disappearance. By taking the stonewalling route, though, Gary Condit is creating the impression, fairly or unfairly, that he has something to hide.

CNN Moderator: Can you compare the way this story is being handled to any other recent stories?

Howard Kurtz: I've never seen a story quite like this. We cover a lot of murder stories, but not usually one with no clear motive, and no body. The Chandra story has become so pervasive, particularly on cable, that its sheer intensity does resemble past media frenzies over Monica Lewinsky, Elian, Princess Diana, and other tabloid-style dramas.

Question from chat room: Is it possible she's in Europe and completely unaware of what's going on?

Howard Kurtz: We'd all like to believe that this 24-year-old woman is hiding out somewhere and therefore still alive. Sadly, given her good relationship with her parents, it is hard to imagine that she would remain out of touch for seven excruciating weeks, while the whole country speculates about her whereabouts. Even in Europe, it would be impossible to escape the publicity about this story. So that scenario doesn't seem too likely.

Question from the chat room: Have the parents given an explanation as to why they have hired a lawyer?

Howard Kurtz: The Levys are clearly dissatisfied with the pace of the D.C. police investigation and feel they need a big time Washington attorney to represent their interests in this matter, particularly because a member of Congress is involved.

Question from chat room: The Washington post reported that Condit's press secretary recently said that reports of moving in with her boyfriend was "News to me." Is this an important turn of events? The press secretary seems to be backing off, maybe for his own credibility.

Howard Kurtz: It's one tiny piece of the overall puzzle. That information came from an interview with the landlord of Chandra's building who says she told him she was thinking of giving up her apartment to move in with her boyfriend. He later explained that the plan had fallen through. But the landlord doesn't know whether the boyfriend in question was Condit, so it's hard to know just what to make of that.

Have the parents explained why they refused Congressman's Condit's telephone call?

Howard Kurtz: No. There was a lot of criticism in the press that Condit was not only keeping his public silence, but had made no effort to talk to Levy's parents. When he finally called, Susan Levy said she could not speak to him, and suggested he call the couple's lawyer. My guess is that the lawyer advised the parents not to speak to the Congressman. One of the more fascinating subplots here is the way that Chandra's parents have gradually turned more critical toward Gary Condit, as the questions about his relationship with their daughter have mounted.

CNN Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

Howard Kurtz: I follow the trajectory of many Washington stories, and this one is clearly heading toward the stratosphere. Tax cuts and global warming may be more important, but at the moment, the Chandra saga is what nearly everyone here is talking about.

CNN Moderator: Thank you for joining us today

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for the very smart questions!

Howard Kurtz joined the chat room via telephone from Washington, D.C. and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Thursday, June 21, 2001 at 12 p.m. EDT.

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Condit faces second interview on missing intern
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