Levy story sweeps other news to the side

Media plunge into full blanket coverage mode

May 24, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

A historic verdict in racially motivated killings in the Deep South. A deadly suicide bombing in the Middle East. A threat registered against New York City landmarks. A presidential visit abroad.

These were the stories displaced over the past two days for this development: the discovery of skeletal remains in the woods of Rock Creek Park in northwest Washington. Television briefly transported its viewers this week to an earlier age, just nine or 10 months ago, when there was little enough happening in the world that the disappearance of Chandra Levy could dominate the airwaves.

"Last summer, I did it, griping," CNN reporter Bob Franken said in an interview. "I felt that sometimes I was on the air too much. Every time at a hearing, when [Rep. Gary Condit] said, `Mr. Chairman, I want to talk about legumes,' we went live."

But Franken argued that his network has generally approached the story cautiously and responsibly. "It came to a point where it was undeniably a story," he said.

So it was again this week, even during those initial hours of coverage, when Levy's bones had not yet been identified. Her death is, in its way, an irresistible subject - a powerful man, a missing young woman and a lot of legitimate questions. But most TV news outlets yielded to this temptation without much compunction, putting on a series of dispatches with few details and copious interviews with experts, lawyers and law enforcement types.

James Starrs, a professor of law and forensics at George Washington University, told Charles Gibson on ABC's Good Morning America yesterday that her death was "probably a strangulation." He added, with a trace of candor, "Those are speculations - but, I believe, reasonable ones."

D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey settled quickly - and comfortably - back into the role of ubiquitous media figure. Yesterday he accommodated such morning news shows as Good Morning America, NBC's Today, CBS' Early Show and CNN's American Morning.

A study released yesterday by the Project for Excellence in Journalism contends that hard news receives declining attention from the networks. Wednesday night, NBC and ABC's nightly newscasts led with the Levy story. Of the big three broadcast networks, only CBS held off, waiting until the second wave of stories to tell viewers that Levy's remains had been found and identified.

"It's unbelievable that the second the hint of this story came round again that it consumed every scrap of air time," said Jim Murphy, executive producer of the CBS Evening News. "I'm constantly astounded by what we're capable of" in the news business.

Yesterday morning, Early Show, Today and Good Morning America each devoted the first quarter-hour of their primary 22-minute news block to Levy. On cable, however, other issues were starting to emerge once again. All three cable news channels provided live coverage of President Bush's speech to the German Parliament.

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