AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   September 2001

How the Chandra Levy Saga Took Off   

By Kathryn S. Wenner
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at the Washington Post.     

So just how did the Story of the Summer make the jump from a missing-person report in Washington, D.C., to a network morning news show segment in less than a week? The conventional wisdom says it was a combination of a missing-person foundation's skillful PR effort and the scent of scandal that got the story of vanished 24-year-old Californian and former government intern Chandra Ann Levy on the national air. Certainly those factors helped keep it there and contributed to an increasingly insistent, though small, chorus of voices crying that coverage was overblown, tabloidesque and based on rumors--charges that applied more to cable talk shows than to actual news reports.

But conversations with some of the first journalists to report the story reveal that in fact, a combination of the basics--dogged persistence, practiced instincts and, most important, fortunate happenstance--were all it took to make the story national news.

Reporters in Washington, D.C., were the first to learn of Levy's disappearance when they received a press release and photo from the Metropolitan Police Department on Thursday, May 10. Levy hadn't been seen since April 30. Like his local TV counterparts, who aired reports that evening, Washington Post metro reporter Arthur Santana talked to detectives working the case and learned the unusual circumstances packed bags, money and IDs in the apartment, no signs of a struggle--which were enough to merit a 276-word story that ran May 11 on B3.

Though at least one local television reporter says he heard Rep. Gary Condit's name at the start-- "There were rumblings of the congressman at least having a friendship with her on the first day of the story," says WUSA reporter Gary Reals--Santana says he did not. His story contains no mention of Condit, although the California Democrat made his oft-mentioned $10,000 contribution to the reward fund on the 10th.

On the other side of the country on Friday morning, May 11, Wendy Thermos, an editor for the Los Angeles Times' national edition, arrived for another day of her three-week general assignment reporting gig (something she has done before, she says, to keep from getting stuck in a rut). Morning City Editor Sam Enriquez handed her a wire report on Levy's disappearance and said, "See what you can do with this." So Thermos and a photographer drove over to the University of Southern California graduation ceremony that Levy was supposed to have attended that day. After more than two hours of tapping strangers on the shoulder and asking if they knew Chandra Levy, Thermos found someone who directed her to a tiny group--three students sitting together.

Thermos, at 26 years in the business a veteran of many missing-person and crime stories, probed for information about Levy. One of the women, Michelle Yanez, remembered that Levy had sent an e-mail earlier in the spring to several friends mentioning a mysterious boyfriend that Levy said she "could not" identify. "My ears perked up," Thermos recalls. "I thought, 'There's more to this than meets the eye.' " Yanez then added, almost as an afterthought, that the boyfriend was "in politics."

Thermos put those quotes from Yanez, plus another saying Levy's secretiveness about the relationship worried her friends, in the 15th, 16th and 17th graphs of her 546-word story that ran May 12.

Back east in New York City, Shelley Ross, executive producer of ABC News' "Good Morning America," was at home that weekend engaged in a regular ritual--reading the L.A. Times to keep up with the city she lived in for 20 years--when she saw Thermos' story.

"It was clearly every parent's nightmare," Ross says. "It reminded me of the way I felt when I first saw the story about the missing tourists in Yosemite," three women who later were found murdered. She notes with sorrowful irony that an organization started by the family of two of the women, the Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation, was one of the first places Susan and Robert Levy contacted when they realized their daughter was missing. The organization, which happens to be headquartered in the Levys' hometown of Modesto, helps families publicize missing loved ones.

It struck her, Ross says, "like a lightning bolt" that Levy hadn't run away, considering what she'd left behind. Plus, there was the secret boyfriend in politics. "Your gut just tells you," Ross says. "You smell a story." Also, she adds, she knew publicity would increase the chances that Levy would be found alive.

She made some calls, and on Monday morning, May 14, Diane Sawyer interviewed Susan Levy and Jennifer Baker, the young woman who appeared with Chandra in a now-famous photo with Condit, on "Good Morning America." National viewers heard questions about "a mysterious boyfriend in politics," which Mrs. Levy, who later turned out to have known about her daughter's relationship with Condit, effectively dodged.

"NBC Nightly News" ran its first Andrea Mitchell package on the story on May 16. Jonathan Wald, then executive producer of the "Nightly News," saw a story in that day's Washington Post that he found fascinating. "Here was a case of a young woman in Washington, who had come there as an intern, [who] because of her wealthy parents was getting a little bit of extra help that most missing young people don't get," says Wald, now executive producer of "Today."

Not until the next day were the other broadcast and cable network morning shows able to interview Susan Levy.

That same day, Helen Kennedy of New York's Daily News (who lives in the same D.C. apartment building Levy did) helped spread the word about a startling advance in the story: a report by Washington TV journalist Pat Collins of WRC that Condit had told investigators Levy had visited his apartment. And Michael Doyle of the Modesto Bee published quotes from an exclusively obtained e-mail Levy had sent to a friend in December, saying that her "man" would return to Washington when Congress started up again, and that she'd lied to one woman friend (apparently Baker) about having a boyfriend in the FBI.

Even if you aren't a hard-core follower of the Chandra Levy saga, you probably know the rest of the story--it was headline news for about two months. As of mid-August, no trace of Levy or clues to her disappearance had turned up, and police were beginning to say the case, still classified as a missing person, may never be solved.

And with no new information, the story fades from public attention. "I'm sure the Levy family understands that, sad as it is, there's no new information" to keep the story of their missing daughter in the papers and on the air, Thermos says. At the moment, "there's no obvious conclusion that anyone can draw about what might have happened to her."