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The Ruminator: Danno Rather discovered Levy last week–and blew it

Jul 23, 2001  •  Post A Comment

When TV folk go sanctimonious on me, I go nuts. Case in point: Dan Rather. For months it appeared that Rather wasn’t going to mention l’affaire Condit and Levy until someone was able to tell him, “Book ’em, Danno.”
But, miracle of miracles, last week Danno did indeed utter the name of Chandra Levy on the “CBS Evening News,” about two months after other news outlets first mentioned the case. If you didn’t see it, lemme tell you about it. It was one for the TV News Hall of Fame-in the “Anchor Doesn’t Hide His Disdain for Story” department.
First, Danno introduced the piece by saying there was news of national import in the widely publicized Levy case, though Miss Levy, Danno reminded us, was only one of thousands of missing persons in this country. I guess this was supposed to signal to regular viewers why Danno was finally doing a piece on the case. And what was this earth-shattering development? That the FBI had now given the case to investigators that work on really tough cases. Ooooooooo, go get ’em, Danno. Then, after the taped report, Rather had the audacity to lecture us that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about the case because no one has officially been accused of anything.
What friggin’ pomposity! A weaker person would have choked on their scotch, but I was able to keep mine down.
Now that Danno and his chief producer Jim Murphy have succumbed to the news story that most Americans are talking about, does it mean they have joined the other journalistic heathens who have fallen in love with reporting on the 24-year-old missing intern and the 53-year-old congressman from her hometown? Not likely. Just to watch Danno’s face during his lead-in and painful tag lectures made it clear the “CBS Evening News” will be Chandra-free for the foreseeable future.
Let’s look at the history of this. Early May: Chandra vanishes. Her parents plead for help. The morning shows on ABC, NBC, and yes, CBS as well as the cable news outlets, smell a story. Then comes the journalistic charge we’ve witnessed with O.J. and Monica. When the missing intern is linked with a married congressman-more coverage.
Even the barons of printed journalistic ethics-The New York Times and The Washington Post-begin to publish. The pace picks up on cable, where it is All Chandra All the Time. With his admission of a sexual relationship, after many denials, the Congressman Condit aspect of the Chandra story is big news worldwide. NBC assigns one of its heavyweights in Washington-Andrea Mitchell-to bird-dog the story.
It begins to lead the Brokaw newscast. Peter Jennings’ show reports on it. The morning shows make it a 7 a.m. staple, and CNN’s “Reliable Sources” does its journalistic hand-wringing almost every Sunday.
But still not one broadcast word on the “CBS Evening News.” In public, Rather is quiet, other than to say he’s comfortable with his broadcast. Producer Murphy is more vocal. He says he’s sickened by all this coverage.
Meanwhile, all of America is asking, “Where is Chandra?” “How are her parents holding up?” “What, if anything, did the congressman have to do with her disappearance?” By late June and early July, the media noose is closing around Condit’s neck. There’s his high-powered lawyer and mouthpiece Abbe Lowell on TV and in the papers. The Levy family has its own high-powered and cool Washington player, Billy Martin, also making the rounds.
And, of course, there are leaks from both camps. Still, Chandra is apparently not news to Danno or Murphy.
Then, the cops have a late-night search of the congressman’s home. Surely, that’s news-at least every Shirley I know thought it was. After all, police at 11 o’clock at night checking for evidence at a congressman’s D.C. home is not an everyday occurrence. NBC’s Tim Russert and CBS’s Bob Schieffer devote almost all of one of their Sunday talkfests to the Chandra case. But Danno and Murphy apparently aren’t Shirley. They still don’t succumb.
By mid-July, TV columns in newspapers are asking Danno and Murphy, “What’s the frequency?” “Are you guys crazy?” “Don’t you know what a news story is?”
And until the 18th, they said it’s no story. By thumbing their nose at what clearly was an ongoing and interesting-as well as heartbreaking-story, both Danno and Murphy made a mistake. It was made worse by all the pious, holier-than-thou remarks by Rather’s mouthpiece Murphy in print and by Danno’s arrogance when they finally did report on the story.
The Ruminator can only imagine the shouting matches that must have gone on behind closed doors at CBS News central on West 57th Street in New York. Judging from “Face the Nation, “The Early Show,” CBS radio, the CBS owned-and-operated TV stations and even “Entertainment Tonight,” produced by CBS sibling Paramount, Danno and Murphy were alone at CBS. While I’m sure no one likes the story, the people at NBC, ABC, Fox, CNN and all the newspapers in America reported it. Hell, even Newsweek put it on its cover last week.
By making themselves above the news, Danno and Murphy did their viewers a disservice. News pros make judgments every day. These two pros judged wrong. Then to make matters worse, judging from the way they finally did report on this on July 18, it appears Danno and Murphy haven’t learned their lesson yet. Sorry guys, but that’s the way it is.
So now, every night, scotch in hand, I tune in to Danno’s broadcast waiting to see when and if Messrs. Murphy and Rather join the news real world and report the story of the summer of 2001 without a smirk or a wink. Courage, guys …