News and Features
Although it happened in early July after ethically challenged Congressman Gary Condit finally admitted to police that he'd had an adulterous affair with 24-year-old Chandra Levy, it's hard to say precisely when the media's obsession with the missing person case slipped into predictable absurdity.
Was it the night CNBC's Geraldo Rivera dialed up one of Condit's old motorcycle buddies to discuss on the air whether Condit had had a vasectomy? (That, of course, to answer the stitched-together what-if, "What if Chandra was pregnant at the time of her disappearance?") The buddy said yes. Geraldo then quoted a "trusted" former FBI agent who insisted he had information that Levy had menstruated in late April, so she couldn't have been pregnant.
Was it the night when Fox News Channel's Paula Zahn, conducting her approximately seventy-eighth Levy-related interview in prime time, asked spiritual teacher Sylvia Browne where Levy's body was? Unlike everyone else in America, Browne knew the answer; Levy's body was located near "some trees down in a marshy area...but this girl is not alive."
Zahn: How do you know that, Sylvia?
Browne: Because I'm a psychic.
Was it when San Francisco Chronicle writer Dave Ford wrote "Condit's private life wouldn't have mattered if he hadn't lied about being involved with a young woman who remains missing" (emphasis added)? Because, naturally, if Condit had held a press conference the day Levy was declared missing and announced he'd had an extramarital affair with the intern and talked to her right up to the time of her disappearance, his private life would have been of no interest to reporters.
But that's what happens when the national press decides to tell a scandal story they like; preferred narrative trumps fact every time. The press doesn't have a clue about whether Condit played any role in Levy's disappearance, but that's not really the point. Journalism today, particularly the bold brand perfected in Washington over the past decade, has become such an odd, arrogant animal it no longer plays by any recognizable rules. In the wake of Katharine Graham's passing, her beloved Washington Post suffered an unwelcome reminder of just how badly its game has slipped since the paper's heady Watergate days. The Post was forced to run a lengthy recantation when a Modesto, California, minister admitted to the FBI that he had fabricated the story about his daughter having an affair with Condit seven years ago. The Post ran that irrelevant gossip as a page-one exclusive, even though it never confirmed the story with the daughter or the Congressman. Remember when Woodward and Bernstein had to three-source their stories?
Convinced, like the Post, that Condit's love life was in and of itself news, the Fresno Bee ran a story about a 31-year-old Congressional aide who said that five years ago Condit gave her his phone number! And not just any number--oh, no--a "mysterious" phone number. As the excitable aide explained, "When you call, you just hear music playing and then a beep. That is when you are supposed to leave a message."
It's called a pager.
And Dan Rather's CBS Evening News was chastised for not running this stuff?
The pundits got some things right, like taking Condit's spokeswoman to task for the slimy suggestion that Levy may have invited danger with a string of one-night stands. But then they went one step further, insisting that Levy's private life was irrelevant to the investigation. "This shouldn't even be an issue," argued Fox News Channel's Alan Colmes. So, for those keeping score at home, detailing the sordid details of a nonsuspect's sexual history is paramount for the press but discussing possible intimate relationships the missing woman may have had--other than, of course, with the nonsuspect Congressman--is completely out of bounds. How on earth does the press keep track of these arbitrary boundaries?
During a press feeding frenzy it's always easier if the good guys and bad guys are clearly identified. And from the press's perspective, clearly nobody associated with the Levy family--not their lawyers, private investigators or public relations experts--was open to question. What else would explain the silence surrounding this flip-flop?
On July 15 the Levys' Washington attorney, Billy Martin, was asked on Meet the Press whether Chandra was pregnant at the time of her disappearance.
Martin: We do not yet have a final answer on that.
Here's what he said five days earlier on CBS's Early Show, when asked the exact same pregnancy question by Jane Clayson:
Martin: I don't think we want to answer that, but we do know the answer.
Clayson: You do know the answer?
Martin: We do know the answer.
The press politely looked the other way, never uttering a peep.
Incredibly, media bigfoots have actually toasted the press's performance. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, when not soliciting worthless opinions from true-crime authors on what had happened, insisted that the Levy story is "the stuff of great...journalism through the ages." Fox News Channel's Juan Williams suggested with a straight face that the press has been "restrained" in its coverage. (Will Williams ever challenge his employer on the air?) And the editor of the Beltway bible, The Hotline, was nearly moved to tears by the press's admirable job. Not only had the press "come through with flying colors" but the Levy story reminded us all that journalism "can be a dirty, ugly and even dangerous business. Those who aren't willing to take on those aspects of the profession might want to think about a new line of work."
Apparently, setting up a tripod for another day of tedious media stakeouts in front of Condit's district office is not for the faint of heart.
Joe Pulitzer famously said, "A newspaper should have no friends." Looking at the massed ranks of America's elites attending Katharine Graham's funeral in Washington on July 23, it's maybe churlish to recall that phrase, but it's true. At least in political terms, Mrs. Graham had way too many friends.
The twin decisions, concerning the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, that made Mrs. Graham's name as a courageous publisher came at precisely the moment when, in biographical terms, she was best equipped to handle pressure. She'd had eight years to overcome the timidities that bore down on her after Phil Graham's suicide left her with a newspaper she resolved to run herself. The amiable but essentially conservative bipartisanship that had the notables of each incoming administration (Carter-time excepted) palavering happily in her dining room hadn't yet numbed the Post's spinal nerve.
Mrs. Graham sustained her fatal fall during an annual confab of the nation's biggest media and e-billionaires, organized by the investment banker Herb Allen and held in Sun Valley, Idaho. It was a proper setting for her passing. Sun Valley was developed as a resort by the Harrimans, starting with the nineteenth-century railroad bandit E.H. Harriman. That quintessential insider, Averell Harriman was often to be seen at Mrs. Graham's house in Georgetown.
Mrs. Graham didn't strong-arm her editors and reporters, they say. But editors and reporters aren't slow to pick up hints as to the disposition of the person who pays their wages, and she sent out plenty such clues.
In late 1974, after Nixon had been tumbled, Mrs. Graham addressed the Magazine Publishers' Association and issued a warning: "The press these days should...be rather careful about its role. We may have acquired some tendencies about overinvolvement that we had better overcome. We had better not yield to the temptation to go on refighting the next war and see conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist." She called for a return to basics. Journalists should stop trying to be sleuths. In other words: The party's over, boys and girls! It's not your business to rock the boat.
Mrs. Graham had plenty of reasons, material and spiritual, to find excessive boat-rocking distasteful. The family fortune, and the capital that bought and nourished the Post, was founded in part on Allied Chemical, the company run by her father, Eugene Meyer. I remember a hard edge in her voice when she deplored "those fucking environmentalists"--perhaps because rabble-rousers had derisively taunted her as "Kepone Kate" after a bad Allied Chemical spill in the James River. Yes, privately her language was agreeably salty.
By the early 1980s the leftish liberal Kay Graham of the late 1930s, who would associate as a tyro reporter with the red longshoreman leader Harry Bridges on the Oakland docks, was long gone. For one thing, there had been the ferocious pressmen's strike in 1975, and the successful lockout. Rhetorically, at least, Mrs. Graham did not later make the gaffe of equating the sabotage of her plant by the Pressmen's Union with the disposition of the AFL-CIO, but I don't think she ever forgave labor; and that strike helped set Mrs. Graham and her newspaper on its sedately conservative course.
In the early 1980s she associated increasingly with Warren Buffett, the Nebraska investor who bought 13 percent of the Post's B stock and who was then riding high as America's most venerated stock player. Mrs. Graham simultaneously became a big-picture mogul, pickling herself in the sonorous platitudes of the Brandt Commission, on which she served.
The best evidence of the Post's decline, symbolic of what Mrs. Graham had overseen, was a seven-part, multi-thousand-word series published in January 1992. The series launching that election year was by two prominent Post reporters, David Broder and Bob Woodward, who "for six months followed the Vice President everywhere" and "spent an unprecedented amount of time interviewing Mr. Quayle," discovering after these labors that the derided veeplet was a much underestimated statesman of discriminating stature.
In the early 1990s I used to get copies of letters sent to the Post's editors and ombudsman by Julian Holmes, a Maryland resident with a career in the Navy Weapons Lab, who read the Post diligently every day, firing off often acute and pithy criticisms. In all, Holmes told me the other day from his Maine home, he sent some 130 such letters to the Post and achieved a perfect record of zero published.
Deploring the Quayle series in a letter sent to ombudsman Richard Harwood on January 22, 1992, Holmes pointed out that nowhere in the "in-depth" exam of Quayle could be found the words crime, public land, population, healthcare, oil, capital punishment, United Nations, Nicaragua, unemployment, homeless or AIDS.
No need to labor the point. The basic mistake is to call the Washington Post a liberal paper, or its late proprietor a liberal in any active sense, unless you want to disfigure the word by applying it to such of her friends as Robert McNamara. When it came to war criminals she was an equal opportunity hostess. In her salons you could meet Kissinger, an old criminal on the way down, or Richard Holbrooke, a younger 'un on the way up. The Post's basic instincts have almost always been bad.
Former Mayor Marion Barry had some pro forma kindly words for Katharine Graham after her death, but I always think that one decisive verdict on the Post's performance in a city with a major black population came with the jury verdict acquitting Barry on the cocaine bust. Those jurors knew that the Post, along with the other Powers That Be, was on the other side from Barry, and I've no doubt that firmed up their assessment of the evidence. In that quarter, for sure, neither the Post nor Mrs. Graham had an excessive number of friends.
A world effort to force an end to the US death penalty is gaining strength.
There was a short note in the New York Times a few months ago reporting that Governor Jeb Bush wept while speaking to the Southern Regional Conference of the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education. He was crying, it turns out, for a press aide of his, a black woman who he said had been scorned by other blacks because she worked for him. "I'm not crying for me, I'm crying for you, Leslie, and others who have to make the ultimate sacrifice." The woman in question then mounted the podium and handed him "a tissue for his eyes." It was an affecting little story in its narrative elements, the strong but kindhearted white statesman who cries for the lost society of his black aide, while she, the brave moral soldier, risks all--race, face, culture, friends--for her beliefs.
I'd like to succumb to the feel-good sentimentality of it all, but when Republicans say they are going to reach out to the black community, as they have made such fuss about doing of late--well, frankly, I cringe. I remember George Bush the elder getting all choked up about Clarence Thomas's "ultimate sacrifice." I have awful recollections of the Republican Party courting Sammy Davis Jr. so that he could weep, or was it laugh, with Richard Nixon. Oh, the highs, the lows.
In any event, despite the Bush team's race to pose with black church ladies and black mayors and black children enrolled at failing inner-city schools, a recent Gallup poll shows African-American optimism about race relations is lower than it was thirty-five years ago. While seven out of ten whites say that blacks and whites are treated the same, a similar number of blacks say that blacks and whites are treated very differently. The poll also shows that since Bush's election, blacks have grown substantially more pessimistic about their political future, even as 70 percent felt positive about their personal lives. While some commentators found this contradictory, it was a statistic that struck home with me. I am a black person who feels personally content; I am grateful for what I have and work hard to protect my little status quo. But at the same time, I am just plain scared of what the future holds for dark-skinned people in the political arena.
Perhaps the Bush team will read of my dejection, perhaps they will read this much and weep. Then again, perhaps not: As David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, has said, reaching out to African-Americans most likely wouldn't win many black votes but could help Bush expand his base. "I think the strategy has less to do with getting black support than with making Bush appear more moderate to swing voters, particularly white women in the suburbs, who have a sense that the GOP is an antiblack party."
It is interesting to compare how well the Gallup poll's documentation of divided racial perceptions corresponds to actual conditions. After all, a recent Harvard study shows that US schools grew more segregated during the 1990s for both blacks and Latinos. A study conducted by the Washington Post shows that blacks experience more discrimination than any other ethnic group by far. (The "ethnicities" specified in the study were black, white, Asian and Latino. Native Americans weren't mentioned, and the complicating factor that Latinos are sometimes categorized as either black or white was not addressed. Nevertheless, if one accepts that these labels reveal more about our society as a pigmentocracy rather than about ethnicity in the strict sense, then such data are still extremely interesting.)
This deep division is not a matter of whether we see the glass half-full or half-empty--a cliché that minimizes the irrationality of what is going on as just a matter of conflicting opinions. In the face of nationwide statistics that establish that dark-skinned people of whatever ethnicity are stopped, searched and arrested more frequently and sentenced more harshly; in the face of statistics showing that blacks across the socioeconomic spectrum get much less comprehensive medical treatment for illnesses ranging from asthma to AIDS to cancer to heart attacks; in the face of figures revealing that banks, employers, restaurants and real estate agents still routinely engage in redlining and other discriminatory lending and business practices; given the realities of environmental racism; given the gutting of civil rights laws to the point where Congress is now debating handing money to religious groups that "believe" in discrimination; given marginalization in the voting process and given fears of a recession... well, it's no wonder blacks are a little less positive. The only wonder is how deeply race rather than citizenship affects the ability to hear this bad news.
On a recent radio program, I heard a woman describing a reunion of family and friends that had been planned for a resort in South Carolina during a time when the NAACP had called for a tourism boycott until the Confederate flag was removed from state property. She said that the extended family had "never" discussed race before, and so they consulted with one another about what to do and whether to go. They did go, but passed the hat and contributed the money to the NAACP. I didn't hear the woman reveal her race, but it's a safe bet that group was white. How else do you go through life "never" thinking about race?
I thought about race when I found myself at Boston's South Station last week, at midnight, vainly trying to get a cab to the airport. The fact that black cabbies pass blacks by as often as white cabbies is no more comforting than, say, having Clarence Thomas joy ride the freedom train right on past black precincts with the same blithe blindness as Antonin Scalia.
But, hey. If it's any comfort to Jeb Bush, my sense is that black people don't revile his black press aide any more than they revile old Jeb himself. And if there's weeping to be done about lost black regard, common decency demands that big brother George should lead the doing of it.
As for Jeb's press aide, the one with Kleenex to spare, I do believe she was last heard trilling, to the tune of "Oh, Susannah": "Oh, young Jeb Bush/Oh, don't you weep for me/For I'm going to make some big bucks/As a black con-ser-va-teeeev!"
These days, the buzz on Capitol Hill seems loudest about Gary Condit.
One of the most surprising decisions of the Supreme Court term just concluded was Justice Antonin Scalia's ruling in favor of a criminal defendant who claimed that a thermal imaging device violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The police used the device to measure the heat leaking from Danny Kyllo's house and inferred from that information that he was growing marijuana inside with heat lamps. Indeed, he was, as the subsequent search revealed: more than 100 plants' worth.
In the most unlikely collaboration of the year, Justices Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined forces with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and David Souter to rule that use of the thermal imaging device was an unconstitutional search. The decision is surprising in several respects--and not just because it rules for a drug defendant. It announces a bright-line rule barring the use of high-tech devices to intrude upon the privacy of the home, in an era where the Court has largely abandoned bright-line rules except where they benefit the police. It speaks in majestic tones about protecting privacy from the onslaught of technology, from a Court that has all but given up on privacy in favor of crime control. And it reaches a result that was by no means foreordained. This was a close case, as Justice John Paul Stevens's quite reasonable dissent shows.
So what's going on here? Should liberals (or drug manufacturers) start looking to Justices Scalia and Thomas for protection of criminal defendants' rights? I'm afraid not. This is a rare instance of an alliance between liberals and libertarians, united here in support of the sanctity of the home. For Scalia and Thomas, at least, it all comes down to property. Step outside, and you're fair game.
The dispute centered on whether the use of the thermal imaging device was a "search" that invaded Kyllo's "reasonable expectation of privacy." The police argued that the device merely registered information from the outside of the home. A police officer's observation that snow melted more quickly on certain parts of a roof would provide the same information, but no one would call that a "search." Since the information came from outside the house, it invaded no privacy.
Justice Scalia rejected that approach, and concluded that whenever the police use "sense-enhancing technology" not in general public use to obtain information that they otherwise could not have gathered without entering the home, they have conducted a search, for which they must have probable cause and a warrant. His opinion waxes eloquent on the home as castle and the need to protect citizens from the intrusions of modern technology. (None too soon, as police are already working on ultrasound technology for houses, although one wonders how they're going to apply petroleum jelly to aluminum siding.)
In its attempt to protect privacy from advancing technology, the decision is a landmark and will stand along with the Warren Court's 1967 decision in Katz v. United States, which extended the Fourth Amendment to include wiretapping. But in another respect, the decision marks an ironic return to the pre-Katz world. Before Katz, Fourth Amendment law was governed by property notions, leading the Court to make ridiculous distinctions between listening devices attached to an outside wall with a thumbtack, which were said to invade property and require a warrant, and similar devices merely taped to the wall, which were deemed not to invade property and therefore not to require a warrant.
Katz importantly held that the Fourth Amendment protects "people, not places" and eschewed arcane property questions for an inquiry into whether the government had invaded a person's "privacy." But Kyllo brings us back full circle, because without any reasoned explanation it expressly limits its protection to homes. Justices Scalia and Thomas's libertarian instincts stop at the doorstep. A man's home may be his castle, but in the view of these Justices, at least, the streets still belong to the police.
The NAACP is back, and it plans on being heard.
Bush's Attorney General is moving the conservative agenda predicted by critics.
Is human cloning a feminist issue? Two
cloning bans are currently winding their way through Congress: In the
Senate, the Human Cloning Prohibition Act seeks to ban all cloning of
human cells, while a House version leaves a window open for cloning
stem cells but bans attempts to create a cloned human being. Since
both bills are the brainchildren of antichoice Republican yahoos, who
have done nothing for women's health or rights in their entire lives,
I was surprised to get an e-mail inviting me to sign a petition
supporting the total ban, organized by feminist heroine Judy
Norsigian of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective (the producers
of Our Bodies, Ourselves) and signed by Ruth Hubbard, Barbara
Seaman, Naomi Klein and many others (you can find it at
www.ourbodiesourselves.org/clone3.htm). Are feminists so worried about "creating a
duplicate human" that they would ban potentially useful medical
research? Isn't that the mirror image of antichoice attempts to block
research using stem cells from embryos created during in vitro
My antennae go up when people start talking about
threats to "human individuality and dignity"--that's a harrumph, not
an argument. The petition raises one real ethical issue, however,
that hasn't gotten much attention but by itself justifies a ban on
trying to clone a person: The necessary experimentation--implanting
clonal embryos in surrogate mothers until one survives till
birth--would involve serious medical risks for the women and lots of
severely defective babies. Dolly, the cloned Scottish sheep, was the
outcome of a process that included hundreds of monstrous discards,
and Dolly herself has encountered developmental problems. That's good
reason to go slow on human research--especially when you consider
that the people pushing it most aggressively are the Raelians, the
UFO-worshiping cult of technogeeks who have enlisted the services of
Panayiotis Zanos, a self-described "cowboy" of assisted reproduction
who has been fired from two academic jobs for financial and other
Experimental ethics aside, though, I have a hard
time taking cloning seriously as a threat to women or anyone
else--the scenarios are so nutty. Jean Bethke Elshtain, who took a
break from bashing gay marriage to testify last month before Congress
against cloning, wrote a piece in The New Republic in 1997 in
which she seemed to think cloning an adult cell would produce another
adult--a carbon of yourself that could be kept for spare parts, or
maybe a small army of Mozart xeroxes, all wearing knee breeches and
playing the Marriage of Figaro. Actually, Mozart's clone would
be less like him than identical twins are like each other: He would
have different mitochondrial DNA and a different prenatal
environment, not to mention a childhood in twenty-first-century
America with the Smith family rather than in eighteenth-century
Austria under the thumb of the redoubtable Leopold Mozart. The clone
might be musical, or he might be a billiard-playing lounge lizard,
but he couldn't compose Figaro. Someone already did
People thinking about cloning tend to imagine Brave New
World dystopias in which genetic engineering reinforces
inequality. But why, for example, would a corporation go to the
trouble of cloning cheap labor? We have Mexico and Central America
right next door! As for cloning geniuses to create superbabies, good
luck. The last thing most Americans want are kids smarter than they
are, rolling their eyeballs every time Dad starts in on the gays and
slouching off to their rooms to I-M other genius kids in Sanskrit.
Over nine years, only 229 babies were born to women using the sperm
bank stocked with Nobel Prize winners' semen--a tiny fraction, I'll
bet, of those conceived in motel rooms with reproductive assistance
from Dr. Jack Daniel's.
Similarly, cloning raises fears of
do-it-yourself eugenics--designer babies "enhanced" through gene
manipulation. It's hard to see that catching on, either. Half of all
pregnancies are unintended in this country. People could be planning
for "perfect" babies today--preparing for conception by giving up
cigarettes and alcohol and unhealthy foods, reading Stendhal to their
fetuses in French. Only a handful of yuppie control freaks actually
do this, the same ones who obsess about getting their child into a
nursery school that leads straight to Harvard. Those people are
already the "genetic elite"--white, with lots of family money. What
do they need genetic enhancement for? They think they're perfect
Advocates of genetic tinkering make a lot of assumptions
that opponents tacitly accept: for instance, that intelligence,
talent and other qualities are genetic, and in a simple way. Gays,
for example, worry that discovery of a "gay gene" will permit
selective abortion of homosexual fetuses, but it's obvious that
same-sex desire is more complicated than a single gene. Think of
Ancient Greece, or Smith College. Even if genetic enhancement isn't
the pipe dream I suspect it is, feminists should be the first to
understand how socially mediated supposedly inborn qualities
are--after all, women are always being told anatomy is their
There's a strain of feminism that comes out of the
women's health movement of the seventies that is deeply suspicious of
reproductive technology. In this view, prenatal testing, in vitro
fertilization and other innovations commodify women's bodies, are
subtly coercive and increase women's anxieties, while moving us
steadily away from experiencing pregnancy and childbirth as normal,
natural processes. There's some truth to that, butwhat about the side
of feminism that wants to open up new possibilities for women?
Reproductive technology lets women have children, and healthy
children, later; have kids with lesbian partners; have kids despite
disabilities and illness. Cloning sounds a little weird, but so did
in vitro in 1978, when Louise Brown became the first "test tube
baby." Of course, these technologies have evolved in the context of
for-profit medicine; of course they represent skewed priorities,
given that 43 million Americans lack health insurance and millions
worldwide die of curable diseases like malaria. Who could argue that
the money and brain power devoted to cloning stem cells could not be
better used on something else? But the same can be said of every
aspect of American life. The enemy isn't the research, it's
In Terre Haute, the effects of one execution are only the beginning.