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Matthew Felling on media coverage of the Chandra Levy case

Chandra Levy  

Matthew Felling is the media director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA). Felling handles the media contacts with the center. As media director, Felling studies trends in the media and issues involved in the media.

CNN: Welcome to Newsroom Matthew Felling. Thank you for joining us today.

MATTHEW FELLING: Good afternoon, chatters! I'm Matthew Felling. You might remember me from such CNN roundtables as this morning.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is the media going overboard with this missing case?

FELLING: The story has merit. Whether or not it warrants wall-to-wall, 24 hour coverage is probably where your question lies. We've seen the networks, ABC and CBS, completely ignore this story on their nightly newscasts, which leads one to question just who is setting the news agenda, and why is there such a gap between cable news and network news.


CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Felling, the speculation in the media is that Mr. Condit is involved in the death of Chandra Levy, even though there isn't yet a dead body. How should people react to this?

FELLING: This is a truly unique story that goes against every journalistic principle. Normally, reporters use the facts to advance the story. In this case, the speculation itself is fueling the story. You raise a good point. Everyone is asking why Condit is not a suspect. The reason for this is that there are no suspects in a missing persons case. Suspects only arise when foul play is assured.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: I wonder if Mr. Felling believes the media has lost its perspective in covering Chandra Levy?

FELLING: Let's separate the cable news networks from the network news first of all, then we can all agree that the media treats a story like this the same way a Komodo Dragon treats Sharon Stone's husband. They sink their teeth in, and refuse to let go. It is true that there are huge issues in this country and around the world that are getting marginalized because of this one whodunnit. The unfortunate truth is that this goes on the air because it will draw our eyes to the set.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Can you talk a little about how the Carole Sund/Carrington Foundation has orchestrated media coverage of the Chandra Levy case?

FELLING: The foundation did a great service to the Levys by providing them a mouthpiece. Had it not been for them and their media savvy professionals, this story would have likely resided strictly in Modesto and Washington as a local story. The only unfortunate side to this is that not everyone, nearly no one, gets such a foundation on their side.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Matthew - how does this story have more merit than the hundreds of missing children cases reported every day.

FELLING: It has media merit because it combines a young woman, the word "intern," and the word "politician." It's a pity, because in Washington, D.C. there are hundreds of missing persons. Across the country there are infinite numbers of such instances, and it really drives the new viewers to question why we place such a high priority on this woman.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What about NBC's coverage?

FELLING: NBC's network coverage has given about 15 minutes to this story since April 30th. Notably absent have been ABC and CBS, who have given the story absolutely nothing in terms of coverage. My conjecture on this would be that NBC would stand in a borderline hypocritical position if they were to have MSNBC broadcasting updates every 15 minutes, and the parent network ignore the story altogether.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Felling, is it the media's responsibility to insinuate Condit had something to do with the Chandra Levy, even if they have no physical evidence?

FELLING: It is sensationalism, and it gets higher ratings because of the combination of the three words I used above. It's unfortunate that we require such sordid side notes in order to give someone attention.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Like many others from outside of America, I find it difficult to understand why lawyers in the case and police are allowed to talk freely to the media. This I don't agree with, do you?

FELLING: Whether I agree or not, this is the reality in America, where we have intricate chess-like maneuvers conducted by lawyers and politicians in order to elicit certain responses from the individuals, the parties on the other side of the issue.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are there any journalistic principles anymore?

FELLING: Yes, Virginia, there are journalistic principles. They're around us every day. This story has grown out of proportion to many, due in sole fact to the data, to the reasoning, and the clues that journalists have decided to dig for.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: If cable news were beholden to other programming, would this story get as much coverage?

FELLING: Absolutely not. The wide discrepancy I pointed out between network news and cable news is the end product of having only 22 minutes to fill, or having 24 hours to fill.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Felling, is the media driving public interest in this story, or is public interest driving the media?

FELLING: The best journalistic news schools in America will offer full tenure to the person who can answer that question. You can pick random sociologists around the globe and get a different answer from each.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

FELLING: Barring Congressman Condit sitting before a camera, wagging his finger, and pronouncing, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Chandra Levy," we are left to ruminate in the post-Lewinsky era as to what the balance should be between innuendo and factual reporting. Someone said that history is told in two acts. The first is tragedy; the second is farce. Unfortunately, we're all beginning to fear that the Lewinsky case, indubitably a farce, will be followed by tragedy in the Chandra Levy case.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Matthew Felling.

FELLING: Thank you for your questions! Have a great weekend!

Matthew Felling joined the chat room via telephone from Washington, D.C. provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Friday, July 06, 2001.

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