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.
I am not proud to say that I was one of the dozens of reporters who succumbed to herd behavior, staking out Condit’s home and investigating the underbelly of the Washington party circuit in a vain search for dirt on the congressman. A Vanity Fair columnist suggested that Condit frequented sex parties at Middle Eastern embassies and arranged for foreigners to kidnap Levy into sex slavery. Cable-news personalities speculated that the congressman, who happened to own a motorcycle, hired the Hells Angels to kill Levy. The anti-Condit mob drowned out all dissenting voices. Of course, we know that Condit was not a murderer, but something much more mundane—a politician who cheated on his wife.
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.
The pack tendencies of journalists are still evident, but skeptical outsiders are now part of the conversation. Take the Duke case: as the mainstream press became consumed with the racial melodrama, several bloggers zeroed in on the facts. History professor K. C. Johnson launched a blog that questioned the accuser's story early on. As the case went on, he spent hundreds of hours investigating and posting factual analysis that dismantled the prosecution's case. Unrestrained by the limits imposed on traditional reporters by periodic deadlines, source relationships, and their neutral pose, Johnson acted as a real-time historian, compiling original source material. Meanwhile, even five months into the case, The New York Times published a credulous 5,700-word story relying far too heavily on prosecutors' claims. Liestoppers, a second grassroots blog focused on the Duke case, tore the Times's story to shreds, finding several errors.
If a congressman’s mistress went missing today, the media firestorm might even be more intense than it was during the summer of 2001. The bizarre conspiracy theories might spread faster. But it also is far more likely that a citizen journalist would think to search public reports of other attacks within days of the disappearance and start connecting the dots. We now know what happened to Chandra Levy. But given the time that was wasted and the evidence that has been lost, it may be too late for justice. We will find out when Guandique’s trial begins this October—nearly a decade after Levy first disappeared.