Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Washington Post Holds DC Hostage: Day 3

It seems like only yesterday. Summer 2001. Dogged reporters stuck in DC in the city's sweltering dog days chased the salacious mysteries and menace attached to the disappearance of Chandra Levy -- an intern who'd been having an affair with a married California congressman named Gary Condit. Her body was found in a little over a year later on May 22, 2002 in Rock Creek Park.

Starting on Sunday, the Washington Post embarked on a 12 part (!) series on the now-cold case -- promising a tale of missed leads, missteps and a murderer who "may never be brought to justice." It's a perfect storm of copy: massive reporting resources used for a series that the paper is firing out to readers in staccato bursts, with a reporter's notebook blog to boot.

I was an editor at Washington's alternative newspaper at the time of Levy's disappearance and murder, and I remember the fascination and the farce of the Levy investigation all too well. In fact, the near-toxic mix of media hype and hysteria led the paper where I worked to eventually surrender to the inevitable and assemble a special issue called "Summer of Chandra" in July 2001.

But I was much prouder of commissioning a story that ran in the paper a few weeks before that special issue, written by then-intern and soon to be staff writer Sarah Godfrey. Headlined "Losing Count," the article tackled the numerous other "missing persons" cases that summer which never got a scrap of the media attention garnered by the Levy case. Sarah's article begins:

Going "missing" in D.C. is more common than you think.

When you go to the Youth and Preventive Services Division of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) at 1700 Rhode Island Ave. NE to ask about missing persons, you'll find dozens of fliers posted on the bulletin board. Most have pictures of children and babies on them. The now-familiar photo of 24-year-old Chandra Levy—dressed in a white sleeveless top and surrounded by a tangle of dark curly hair—is also there, tacked in the middle of the bulletin board. The Federal Bureau of Prisons intern from Modesto, Calif., was last seen April 30, and the search for her has become the focus of a nationwide media frenzy.

At the bottom corner of the bulletin board, there is another, obviously homemade, plea for information about another missing loved one. Its photo shows 19-year-old Nyesa Shaw—a slender young woman dressed for her senior prom or some other occasion that requires fancy dress. Her eyes are turned down, and she flashes a shy half-smile. The flier asks those with any information regarding her whereabouts to contact Shaw's family directly—not the MPD.

"Please help the Shaw family contact Nyesa—Thank You very much and may GOD bless you," the flier concludes.

I'm especially proud of that story -- and the terrific job that Sarah did writing and reporting it -- because I think the piece really got at the class and race issues at the heart of the media fixation on the Levy case. At its essence, it was a story about the perversions and prurience of ruling class DC, perfect for a simmering slow news season. And, of course, perfect for recycling in another sticky summer seven years later.

The Levy story holds a particular fascination for journalists who lived here in that last carefree summer before it all went wrong on 9/11. Despite the tragedy of Levy's death and the frustrations that her murderer was never brought to justice, the saga marked the true end of the 1990s in America's capital city.

Another District, with other missing persons and cold cases, existed before September 11. It still exists today. One wishes that more journalistic resources were brought to bear to bring that city to light and life.

Photo of Chandra Levy from the DC Metropolitan Police Department's website.

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