Would Bloggers Have Cracked Chandra's Case?
A reporter who covered 24-year-old intern Chandra Levy's death looks at a new book about the case—and shares where the mainstream media went wrong.
When Chandra Levy went missing in 2001, she left a road map to her body. The 24-year-old intern quit her gym the day before she disappeared and spent her last known moments searching online for jogging paths in the same Washington, D.C., park where she would ultimately be found dead. But right from the start, a combination of police incompetence and media obsession with the politician Levy was sleeping with derailed the investigation. Finding Chandra, a new book about the case by Washington Post reporters Sari Horwitz and Scott Higham, details a shocking series of blunders by the police, who failed to retrieve security-camera footage showing Levy's final departure from home and somehow were unaware of a pattern of similar attacks on other female joggers. Meanwhile, Horwitz and Higham recount, the press corps failed to ask smart questions, instead jockeying for scoops concerning the most intriguing suspect: congressman Gary Condit.
The failure of both the police and journalists to properly investigate the crime could have tragic consequences. It seems clear now that the culprit was Ingmar Guandique, who was arrested for the other assaults just weeks after Levy vanished. But he may well be acquitted at his upcoming trial. Even though Guandique has confessed to murdering Levy, no forensic evidence exists. Thirteen months went by before Levy's bones were found. The evidence was so eroded that the medical examiner couldn't even determine how Levy died.
The summer of Chandra Levy seems like yesterday, though almost a decade has passed. I'd like to think I'm a better reporter now, less likely to follow the pack. More important, the media landscape has changed. Blogs barely existed in 2001. Now, when I cover any high-profile crime, I make sure to check out Web Sleuths, an Internet forum for armchair detectives who analyze cases and post court filings. When I followed the Duke lacrosse rape story, blogs—many written by people with expertise about North Carolina politics, the law, or even, say, protocol for forensic nurses collecting rape kits—were the best source for appropriately skeptical reporting. The herd mentality of the mainstream media still exists, but it is no longer in control of the narrative. That's a good thing.
Bloggers are unrestrained by the orthodoxies of the professional reporter. They don't need to follow the conventions of the 800-word newspaper story and can instead toss out an idea in two sentences that will nonetheless spur national discussion. They can ask questions without necessarily supplying an answer. Critically, bloggers also do not typically rely on official sources for information. Reporters and their anonymous sources both benefit from the relationship. Reporters get exclusive information, which earns them promotions; sources weave narratives that serve their interests. This corrupting symbiosis makes the reporter all too quick to take an official's word at face value.
In the Levy case, this dynamic was clearly at work. At routine press conferences, all that reporters wanted to hear about was Condit. This suited the police just fine because they didn't have the slightest idea what had happened to Levy. And so, even as they were careful to say he was not a suspect, police dished on Condit, suggesting repeatedly that when the congressman was pressed for information regarding Levy, he was shifty and uncooperative. In fact, as Horwitz and Higham reveal, Condit disclosed his relationship with Levy in his first interview with police, agreed to three more interviews, allowed a search of his apartment, and voluntarily supplied DNA. But press coverage at the time propagated police officials' incomplete portrayal.
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