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Archive for Thursday, July 12, 2001

People, not media, make the story

July 12, 2001

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— When news overturns a person's life, somebody is bound to fault the media. That has happened this summer in two unsettling stories, one involving a congressman, the other, a prominent historian. In each case it's worth noting that the upheaval is rooted in the individual's behavior not in the reporting of it.

The tale consuming Washington and the political world is of Rep. Gary Condit and a young woman named Chandra Levy. Levy came to Washington (from Condit's district in California) for a government internship. The two became involved. In late April, Levy vanished.

There's no public evidence implicating Condit in her disappearance. Nor, however, is there any question why the police require forthrightness from all who knew Levy. Concealment is inimical to finding a missing person.

But concealment is what Condit offered. He called Levy "a good friend" and refused to tell her mother of their affair. As word leaked, his staff sought to quash it. They said he had "nothing to hide." They denied reports she had spent the night in his apartment. When relatives told The Washington Post about the romantic relationship, Condit's lawyer called the story "a frightening violation of the ethics and standards of American journalism."

Finally, in a third interview with police 10 weeks after her disappearance Condit acknowledged his affair with Levy. Yet now his new lawyer claims Condit "got it out early, he got it out truthfully, he got it out completely." And he urges the press to leave Condit and his family alone and to "let them start living their lives again."

The story consuming Boston and the academic world, meanwhile, is of Joseph Ellis, the Mount Holyoke College history professor whose "Founding Brothers" won a Pulitzer Prize last spring. Ellis has for years told his students (and the press) stories of everything from his football prowess in high school to his paratrooper years in Vietnam stories The Boston Globe found to be untrue.

A senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, Jack Beatty, is among those calling the Globe's exposure of Ellis' lies indefensible. The professor is not a public figure, wrote Beatty, and there's no evidence his lying affected his published work. "The Globe should have put Ellis on notice: We know you were not in Vietnam, and if you tell future students or interviewers that you were, and we find out, we will publish our story."

But the role of the press is not to blackmail, but to publish. If information is sound and significant, the press should put it out, where it can be joined by additional information and other views. Take this view from a student of Ellis' who wrote to the Globe: "This falsehood cannot be ignored, but I do not doubt that he is any less knowledgeable about Vietnam, despite not serving there, any more than I doubt his knowledge of Thomas Jefferson, despite the fact that the two men have never met."

To blame the press for undermining Ellis or Condit is to mistake the exposure of the problem for the problem. Ellis' behavior, said a colleague, constituted "a very serious matter the issue of exaggerating to students, the bond between faculty and students." The uncovering of the lies is surely painful, but it's promising, too an opportunity to begin to solve the problem.

Condit's lies may well have been intended to shield his wife and family (and his own reputation) from his infidelity. But they carried the additional threat of obstructing a search in which every passing hour counts.

The Ellis and Condit stories are not only newsworthy. They are powerfully engaging. To read of Ellis' travails is to ponder your own exaggerations or failures to refute false assumptions. To read of Condit and Levy is to encounter sex, power, romance, politics, youthful promise, mystery. And, of course, tragedy. Every time I've heard people talk of the media having gone overboard in covering the Condit story, the talk is followed by a still lengthier discussion probing the case in all its confounding and entangling elements.

The lives of Ellis and Condit will never be the same, it's true. But they instigated the change. As the Globe journalist who covered the Ellis story put it, "There is no joy in this, no high fives. But if you ask who is responsible for the exposure of Joseph Ellis, it's not me and it's not the Globe. It's Joseph Ellis. He did this to himself."




Geneva Overholser is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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