BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week Time Magazine and People Weekly featured big stories on a missing person. Newsweek did it last week. And the cable news shows and the tabloids are doing it all the time. The case of missing Washington intern Chandra Levy inevitably reminds us of the biggest cable news story of the last decade, Monica Lewinsky. Both cases involve an intern and an elected official who uses evasive language to describe the relationship. But Levy's case also brings to mind another huge tabloid story -- JonBenet Ramsey, and playing the role originated by the Ramsey parents is California Congressman Gary Condit, self-described "good friend" of the missing 24 year old.
WOMAN: Meanwhile police would like to hear more details from Representative Gary Condit. Investigators plan to interview the congressman tonight to clear up certain facts he did not share with them in his first interview regarding Chandra's disappearance --for instance, police learned from the media that Condit's wife had been in Washington, DC during that crucial period when Chandra disappeared.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:It's good that police are learning anything from the media, because the media have a hard time learning many lessons on their own, no matter how much criticism cable news gets for turning stories like O.J. and JonBenet into freak shows, it inevitably goes into full carnival barker mode at every opportunity.
BOB GARFIELD:Cable news is demanding -- not of its viewers but of its subjects. It's not enough for a story to be lurid or tragic -- cable news stories have to come with a raft of unanswered questions to be discussed by a flotilla of experts who float their wild guesses with an air of authority. Last week the Fox News Channel turned to the unsinkable Robert Shapiro, O.J. attorney and tabloid story veteran. CNN's The Point with Greta van Susteren was typical of the sort of questions we got on cable news.
GRETA VAN SUSTEREN: Well you know, it's, it's probably grossly unfair to this congressman -- I mean there's an awful lot of attention on him. At this point we simply don't know but the relationship does at least appear bizarre.
BOB GARFIELD:Unfair to the congressman but-- it was a bizarre relationship. Van Susteren seemed to have a hard time reconciling her current role as newscaster with her former role as prosecutor.
GRETA VAN SUSTEREN: But what about the paging - the, the calls from her phone to his pager -- certainly at least up until the point where she's last accounted for seems unusual -- bizarre.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Bizarre but not unusual would be a good description of the news outlets covering the Chandra Levy case. If Gary Condit had nothing to do with Levy's disappearance, the media owe the congressman a Richard Jewell-sized apology, and even if he did, they owe us all back those few minutes of our lives when they used out television to broadcast stuff like the following. Here's Fox's coverage of a press conference given by Billy Martin, the lawyer for Chandra Levy's parents.
WOMAN: Senior Corr--Correspondent Rita Cosby. Rita we all heard the facts of what Billy Martin was saying, but I guess the, the most important thing is to get a reporter's sense of what he was also not saying and hinting at.
BOB GARFIELD:While you're at it, how about a clairvoyant sense of what he was thinking? How about a beautician's sense of the tonsorial message being communicated by his hair cut??
WOMAN: We all heard the facts--
BOB GARFIELD: Facts, facts, facts -- who needs facts?! Hints will be fine. Speculation -- even better. MSNBC's Nora O'Donnell knows the drill.
NORA O'DONNELL: When the question was asked of the attorney and the family: why hire homis--former homicide investigators to help you out, it was then that Dr. and Mrs. Levy were holding hands and then removed their hands from one another and embraced one another. It was clear emotionally that they have reached a different point and they realize that this case needs to move forward. It was almost as if they knew something that we don't know yet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Since the beginning of the year in Washington, D.C. alone more than 500 people who have gone missing are still gone. Many leave behind grieving family and friends. It is all but impossible for the missing persons who don't have any media-friendly traits like connections to congressmen to get a fraction of the attention that Chandra Levy has been getting. Even with 24 hour news, there's simply not enough time.