Press Box

Truth and Condit Frenzies

For three months, the media have demanded that Rep. Gary Condit be held accountable for withholding information from the public in the Chandra Levy case. Most recently, they’ve pummeled Condit’s spokeswoman for allegedly spreading lies about Levy’s sex life. Press Box has no interest in defending Condit’s duplicitous, selfish, and cowardly behavior, but the press corps piranhas should be held to their own standards. Three weeks ago, they disseminated allegations that Condit had carried on an affair with an 18-year-old woman. That story now turns out to be false, but many of its purveyors are dragging their heels about admitting it.

The Washington Post broke the story in a front-page July 12 article headlined “Minister Says Daughter, at 18, Had an Affair With Condit.” The article’s lead paragraph reported, “FBI agents looking into the disappearance of Chandra Levy have approached and interviewed a Pentecostal minister who described an affair between his then-18-year-old daughter and Rep. Gary A. Condit, telling investigators that the congressman had warned her never to speak of the relationship.” But on July 21, in a story headlined “Minister Recants Story About Condit,” the Post reported that the minister “informed investigators this week that he had fabricated the story, a law enforcement source said today.” On July 31, the Post added, “The FBI has concluded that a Pentecostal minister’s account of an affair between his daughter and Rep. Gary A. Condit is untrue.”

To its credit, the Post printed the July 21 article about the minister’s retraction on its front page, at almost the same length as its original July 12 story. Other publications, pundits, and TV news programs haven’t been as scrupulous. Here’s a breakdown (based on searches using Dow Jones and Nexis) of who reported what about the minister’s daughter, and what these members of the press have done–or not done–to correct the record since the story has been discredited.  

Newspapers and Magazines

AtlantaConstitution, July 12
Headline: 2 witnesses describe alleged Condit affairs
Length: 1,002 words
Retraction: Aug. 1, bottom of article headlined “Duplicate key may be new lead in Levy case,” 26 words

DetroitNews, July 12
Headline: Preacher says daughter, Condit had an affair
Length: 246 words
Retraction: July 31, bottom of “National Briefs” (no headline), 108 words

HoustonChronicle, July 12
Headline: Minister describes 18-year-old’s relationship with Condit
Length: 702 words
Retraction: None

MilwaukeeJournal Sentinel, July 12
Headline: Minister says daughter had affair with Condit
Length:184 words
Retraction: Aug. 1, bottom of article headlined “Levy investigation scaled back,” 68 words

New York Daily News, July 12

Daily News, July 21
Key text: Meanwhile, the Levy family puzzled over reports that Modesto preacher Otis Thomas had backed off his statement that his daughter had a bad breakup with Condit. … Privately, some investigators said they thought Thomas was recanting to protect his daughter, who has refused to speak to the FBI for more than two months, allegedly out of fear.

Daily News, July 24
Key text: Condit’s reputation wasn’t helped yesterday when Levy’s parents said they believe a Pentecostal minister recanted his story that Condit had an affair with his daughter because he’s afraid. Susan Levy said she still believes that Otis Thomas’ daughter had an affair with Condit because Thomas had three emotional conversations with her about his daughter. “He’s scared,” Susan Levy said. “There’s a lot of people out there who seem to be scared.”
Retraction: None

New YorkPost, July 13
Key text: A minister’s daughter gave birth to a son during the two years she allegedly had an affair with Rep. Gary Condit–whom she dumped him [sic] because of his sexual demands, The Post has learned.
Retraction: July 20, bottom of article headlined, “CONDIT DUMPED ITEM BEFORE SEARCH: COPS,” 96 words

OrlandoSentinel, July 12
Page: A1
Length: 763 words
Retraction: July 21, page A3, 294 words

Slate, July 13
Headline: What’s the Latest With the Missing Intern? Part 9
Length: 264 words
Retraction:Aug. 3, bottom of article headlined “Explainer Mailbox: A Jail for Generals?,” 98 words

U.S. News & World Report, July 23
Headline: Chasing Chandra
Key text: Add in the disclosure of two more alleged affairs–with a flight attendant and the teenage daughter of a West Coast minister–and, well, suddenly it’s all Chandra, all the time. U.S. News has learned that in all, FBI agents in California are pursuing rumors about more than a dozen women with whom Condit may have had extramarital relations.
Length: 1,809 words
Retraction: None

Television News Broadcasts

ABC Good MorningAmerica, July 12
Tease: More embarrassment for Congressman Gary Condit. … Four law enforcement sources confirming that a minister has been questioned by the FBI. He says his daughter was one more person who had an affair with Congressman Gary Condit, this time when she was just 18.
Length: 299 words
Retraction: Aug. 1, end of interview with Levy’s aunt (Tease: “Chandra Levy’s aunt, the one who knew all her niece’s secrets”), 170 words

CBS Morning News, July 12
Placement: Top story
Tease: Congressman Gary Condit facing new allegations of an affair with the daughter of a California minister.
Length: 321 words
Retraction: July 20, end of news roundup, 26 words

Columnists and Commentators

Lucianne Goldberg
Forum: Fox News Hannity & Colmes, July 20
Key text: I don’t believe that [the minister’s retraction]. … I think this man has been terrified! His daughter has been terrified. He’s been – who is this third party that’s calling up people and threatening them? They called up the airline stewardess. They’ve called up this minister. They–who is it? It isn’t Gary Condit. So someone else is involved here.
Retraction: None

Ellis Henican
Forum:Newsday, July 15
Headline: Condit’s Hiding Something
Key text: Oh, he’s hiding something. Make no mistake about that. And it goes a whole lot deeper than the fact–duh!--that he and Chandra Levy were having this tawdry affair. Or that he was also boinking a small army of airline hostesses, minister’s daughters and assorted other women of grossly impaired taste in men.
Retraction: None

Steve Lopez
Forum:Los AngelesTimes, July 13
Headline: Condit Miserably Fails 10 Commandments Test
Key text: Any day now we’ll be seeing bumper stickers: “Honk if your daughter had sex with Gary Condit.” Condit’s public relations firm, which may have to go on a hiring frenzy to keep up, called the story of the alleged liaison with the 18-year-old “discountable.” I don’t know what Condit’s paying these duffers, but you begin with “baldfaced lies,” and if they keep coming, you call your accusers a “guttersniping cabal of fringe lunatics.” “Discountable” sounds like you’re ready to plea bargain.
Retraction: None

Barbara Olson
Forum: CNN Larry King Live, July 30
Key text: We also have too many people frightened. I mean, you know, the minister was frightened, and I think he truly was, because, of course, he talked to Chandra’s parents back before she was missing. There wasn’t really a reason, and you don’t think a Pentecostal minister is going to exactly come out about that kind of information about their daughter–it’s rather embarrassing–unless it’s something he felt he could help them.
Retraction: None

Bill Sammon
Forum: Fox News Special Report With Brit Hume, July 12
Key text: I find it hard to believe that a minister would make up a story about his daughter having an affair with a congressman. Now what really got me about the story is that she was 18 years old at the time. OK? That was–I don’t know–six, seven, eight years ago, but, still, it would have put him in his late 40s. For a sitting member of Congress to be having an affair with an 18-year-old woman is outrageous. I agree–you know, we talked on this show last night about what’s the next step and we talked about more women–we’re going to start seeing more women–sure enough this morning’s paper brings another batch of them. I think it’s going to continue. The noose is tightening around this guy.
Retraction: None

Juan Williams
Forum:Fox News Sunday, July 22
Key text: The one glimmer of good news this week was when a minister out in Modesto said that, in fact, he had made up a story about his daughter having an affair with the congressman. … So, all of a sudden, even the good news looks as if maybe this man is reacting out of fear, not only for himself but for his daughter. He said, you know, ‘I have nothing to gain by telling this story. Why would I tell a lie?’ All of a sudden now, he’s running in the other direction. It seems like everything about Gary Condit this moment is just radioactive.
Retraction: None