Anatomy of a Scandal

Once upon a time, the Chandra Levy case was the most important news story in the United States. Ok, not exactly important more highly covered. Why? Well, she was white, missing and middle class, and she was having an affair with a congressman. Naturally this made things like war, famine and pandemics fell by the wayside in the land of cable news. Something very much like hysteria was building around the Levy-Condit case and then 9/11 happened. Now reporters Shari Horwitz and Scott Higham have gone back, nine years later, to sort out the fact from the tabloid fiction. What they have written is less true crime and more social commentary. They examine the case itself but they also examine the media coverage of it, and how the media coverage impacted the investigation.

The result is excellent reporting and good writing. Higham and Horwitz know how to bring individuals to life without resorting to extensive inventories of closets. They also don't fall into the "this story was SO hard to report" cliches. They even manage to humanize Gary Condit. He's no more likable at the end of the book than he was before but his actions seems much less sinister though still remarkably bone-headed. The most fascinating aspect is how quickly law enforcement fell under the sway of the media coverage. If Rita Cosby reported something, the police had to follow up.

There remains the issue of whether the Chandra Levy case received disproportionate media coverage and even police attention because she was white and middle class. Well, of course it received more media coverage. Her family was able to work the system and was able to afford advice to help them better work the system. Bully for them. If my child was missing I'd do everything I could to get whatever help I could. Was the media wrong for following up on a story that was dropped into their laps? Not in my opinion.
It is wrong that so many missing non-middle class and/or non-whites don't receive similar attention from the media. But then who really believes that CNN/MSNBC/FOX etc cover these stories as news and not entertainment? Coverage goes to those who have the time, money and connections to scream loudest.
I also found it entertaining that the Washington Post's own readers ombudsman was disgruntled that the series was too long. I guess she was hoping they'd just send a few Tweets and be done with it. Shouldn't the ombudsman at least support the idea of in depth reporting? The concept of the press as a public trust has evaporated before our eyes.

Highly recommended for true crime readers.

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