- The Washington Times - Friday, May 24, 2002

Rest-in-peace has been a lost concept in broadcast this week.

Since Wednesday, news reports about Chandra Levy have been a regular fiesta of shrill and inconclusive combinations of timelines, file footage, instant polls, live reports and odd spinoff stories.

In their zeal to fill time, broadcasters did wonders for the field of anthropology. Forensic specialists were among featured "experts" brought in to speculate on Miss Levy's remains, including one who nervously fingered a real, yellowed skull on camera.

Yesterday, CNN went so far as to interview a university anthropologist who studies human decomposition due to maggots, weather and water all under a bright graphic that read "Chandra Levy Mystery."

"I ask, 'What are the insects involved?'" the scientist told CNN's Bill Hemmer, adding he had accumulated 400 corpses for his research.

"Doctor, how do you get those bodies?" Mr. Hemmer asked with a sheepish grin. The pair did not even mention Miss Levy until the final 30 seconds of the segment.

Other reports were too familiar with the deceased young woman. "How did Chandra die?" blared MSNBC, while Fox News included news that Miss Levy's red "jogging bra" had been found a prurient detail that did not enhance the news story.

None of it surprises Al Tompkins, a broadcast analyst for the Florida-based Poynter Institute, a media think tank.

"This story broke in the last few hours of the May ratings book, which ended at midnight on Wednesday," he said. "It was manna from ratings heaven."

Which helps explain all those frantic correspondents barking nonstop into microphones from Rock Creek Park or the Levy family home.

"There can be some real danger in live reports where reporters must fill time," Mr. Tompkins said. "They say things which can't be retracted later."

He also marveled at the amount of video file footage in use this week, warning that viewers can draw baseless conclusions from old images.

"A message gets planted there if they see enough of, say, Gary Condit hurrying away from the camera," Mr. Tompkins said. "And there is too much speculation in this story. At this point, many reports are just guessing."

Miss Levy's disappearance has already caused media angst. In July, CBS news producer Jim Murphy and anchor Dan Rather decided not to cover the story unless there was a "major development." Some critics accused them, in turn, of trying to protect Mr. Condit, the California Democratic congressman named as Miss Levy's suitor.

A few observers even lashed out at the Levy family for hiring a public relations firm and media-savvy lawyer Billy Martin, who once advised Monica Lewinsky and her mother. The online journal Salon called it "Selling Chandra" last summer.

Ironically, Susan and Robert Levy were on the Oprah Winfrey show Wednesday, almost at the exact moment when D.C. police were learning that Miss Levy's remains had been found.

Even as weary viewers brace for continued coverage or perhaps the inevitable TV movie, the Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study yesterday that claims broadcast news has retreated to the "soft" days before September 11.


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