Labor

Privacy Is an Innocent Victim in the Chandra Levy Case

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Give Jim Murphy an Emmy. Also an Oscar, a Tony, an Obie, and a Hugo. Plus the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize, the Pushcart Prize, the Booker Prize, and an honorable mention in the Van Cliburn international piano competition. Murphy is–or, as of this writing, still was–the executive producer of The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. On July 15, The New York Times reported that his show, alone in the crowd, had been "mute amid the media cacophony" about Chandra Levy's affair with Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif.

The story was all over the tabloids, all over television, a daily item in even the stately Times and the mighty Washington Post. Murphy, however, was holding his ground. "All the speculation, innuendo, gossip, and implications getting on the air were overtaking our basic mission to be fair and objective," he told The Times. To The Post he said, "It's nauseating." He added, "90 percent of the people I work with think I'm a little nuts."

I'm with Jim Murphy. What we nuts want to know is this: Why, exactly, are the sex lives of Gary Condit and Chandra Levy national news? Or I suppose I should say, why should they be news, since everyone knows the reason they actually are news: The story is sensational.

A 24-year-old intern has an affair with a Congressman and mysteriously disappears. Adultery, power, deceit, an ingénue, a mystery, a possible murder–heavens to Betsy, even a flight attendant! To say nothing of red stains, rumors of pregnancy, reports of a bimbo hot line, allegations of trysts with an 18-year-old. Wow! This is eye-popping stuff. I love it! Who wouldn't?

But that does not make it news. Titillation is no reason to publish; it is more like a reason not to publish. Some kinds of information are the journalistic equivalent of heroin. People's sex lives are like that. Precisely because they are addictively interesting, we journalists almost never report them. Whether the subject is Clarence Thomas's alleged cinematic tastes, Bill Clinton's you-know-what with you-know-whom, or Gary Condit's close associations with Chandra Levy among others, respectable journalism rightly sets the bar on sex-life reportage very, very high.

Of course, there are times when the bar is surmounted and privacy yields. A credible charge of, say, rape or sexual harassment would certainly qualify. Some other grave charge in which sex was adduced as the motive could also qualify. Does the Condit case qualify?

The police said that after three interviews, Condit had told them everything they wanted to know. They also said that he was not a suspect. But he was deceitful, and deceit–so the argument goes–trumps privacy. "Little is worth keeping private when someone's life or safety may be at stake," writes Felicity Barringer in The Times. "Someone who chooses to dissemble in those circumstances may be fair game." In this view, lying, not sex, is the real issue. The only way to expose the lies is to expose the sex. (Does that sound familiar?)

There are really two rationales on offer here. One is that Condit lied to the public, the other that he lied to police. The first is a nonstarter. Adultery is bad, but a lot of people do it. Disclosure can humiliate the cuckolded spouse and wreck a family. The answer is privacy: a general agreement not to corner philanderers. They keep it quiet, and everyone else, including the busybody media, pretends not to notice. The fact that the philanderer is a politician implies no exception to this rule, or anyway shouldn't, if the country hopes to elect real human beings rather than plaster saints to office.

It may be true that knowing about the Condit affair could help the police track down Levy. That is a good reason for the police to know who was sleeping with whom and when, but it is not a good reason for the public to know. Normally, of course, the respectable media stay miles away from reporting this sort of thing. In this case, revelation was driven largely by Levy's parents, who orchestrated a campaign to expose Condit. They said they were trying to force him to be forthcoming with the police. Fair enough; but that should have been a matter between them and the cops. The press should not have served as the Levys' all-too-witting accomplices. Think about what would happen if the press routinely published angry relatives' accusations–with names attached–and you quickly understand why reporters should have told the Levys to tell it all to the detectives.

According to a source quoted in The Post, Levy told her mother "to mind her own business" about the affair with Condit, "that she was a grown woman who could deal with it." This suggests that the national exposure of her affair is not something she wanted. If she is alive, imagine the humiliation she may feel. Her privacy, no less than Condit's, is being traduced.

Ah, but Condit deceived the police as well as the public. That's a horse of a different color, isn't it? Perhaps, but be careful. We in the media don't know what the police asked Condit in their first two interviews, and we don't know what Condit said. My guess is that the cops failed to press Condit about the affair, and that he took advantage of their bashfulness to be evasive. Like everyone else, however, I'm guessing. All we in the media really knew, when we began playing the Condit-Levy affair on page one, was that Chandra Levy's _relatives_ believed that Condit had lied to the cops.

When the authorities charge a public official with lying to them or otherwise impeding an investigation, that's news. When, by contrast, angry relatives charge a public official with lying to the authorities, that's just information. When the supposed lie concerns a consensual affair conducted by a person whom the police insist is not a suspect in a case where a crime may or may not have been committed–well, calling that national news is really pushing it.

"But if not for us," say helpful journalists, "Condit might never have come clean." It is, of course, inspiring to see the public-spirited tabloids rally to their nation's service in this way. The implicit division of labor here seems to be that the police will investigate the crime, and the press will investigate the private lives of the people investigated in the crime. On this rationale, the sex life of any prominent person whom the police question–not charge, not even suspect, but question–is an open book.

What journalists of the smoke-'em-out school are forgetting is that investigative privacy is at least as important as sexual privacy, and not only to the people being investigated but also to the police. Criminal investigations depend on the voluntary cooperation of dozens or hundreds of people. When journalists feel free to investigate and publicize the secrets of anyone they suspect of deceiving the police, people will clam up or disappear. "Officer," their lawyers will say, "my client would love to help, but he can't afford to have his private life explored and exposed in the national media, so you can't talk to him."

Moreover, sometimes cops are wrong. Sometimes investigations are misguided or vindictive. I know a man whose name was leaked to a newspaper a few years ago, by an unnamed police source, as a suspect in a murder. The man, I'm confident, had no more to do with the murder than you or I, and neither he nor anyone else was ever charged, but his career is wrecked. People who are charged can win acquittal and clear their names; people named in newspapers as "possible suspects" cannot even do that.

Well, what if Condit is eventually charged with something to do with whatever happened to Levy? Wouldn't that retroactively justify the scrutiny he has received? The answer is still no. No one, not even a Congressman, should have to prove his innocence to the press in order to secure privacy.

If reporters dig up hard evidence implicating someone in a crime, good for them. But nothing dug up about Condit's or Levy's sex lives, or alleged about them, comes close to meeting that standard. Even the police said so. "We're not the sex police here," Washington Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey admonished the press in early July. "We've got a lot of people out here interested in a sex scandal. I'm only interested in that if it has a connection to the missing person."

Although it's a stretch, it's not impossible to imagine reporters telling the Levys: "OK, maybe the guy is a lying sleazeball. Maybe he had an affair with your daughter. We believe you. Please tell the cops. But it's not news." It's possible to imagine stories that discreetly alluded to rumors of an affair without naming names. Once upon a time, quite a few respectable media outlets–not just The CBS Evening News–required at least one very strong reason to take a bazooka to privacy. Now, apparently, a string of very flimsy reasons will do just as well.