Chandra Levy Redux

The splash made by The Washington Post’s much-discussed rehash of the Chandra Levy murder case rippled far beyond the thirteen days of the series’ publication, though perhaps not in the way WaPo executive editor Leonard Downie might have hoped. Bloggers and ombudspersons alike generally concluded that the series, though gripping, really wasn’t worth all the fuss.

The Post, for its part, claimed that “[i]n the end, the serial will reveal how an enormous effort by the D.C. police, the FBI and prosecutors was undercut by a chain of mistakes, a misdirected focus and missed opportunities that allowed a killer to escape justice.” In other words, the point of the series, per the Post, was to bring some much-needed closure to those readers who followed the course of the investigation seven years ago.

I can’t speak for those viewers of yore. When the Levy case first broke in May 2001, I was in the sixth grade. My scope of the world was predictably limited. I obviously had no interest in watching the news, and if I did happen to be sitting in the backseat while my parents listened to the radio, talk of Levy was invariably deemed too risqué for my ears and switched off. I have grown up almost completely in the post-9/11 media world, one without mention of Gary Condit or his penchant for curly-haired youth.

And yet I feverishly read the unfolding chapters each morning. I debated with friends—other equally interested female interns in the city for the summer (sound like anyone else?)—as to whether any new information was revealed in the investigation, swapping hunches as though recapping last night’s Dawson’s Creek episode while still in middle school. I was completely enthralled…but, I realize, with no real reason.

So I felt more than a little duped when the series concluded, and I realized that I had read the story not for its relevance, but because it was a sensational and relatable tale.

Though pegged as a return to journalism’s sensationalist roots, certain scenes read more 90210 than 1950s serialization:

“During their initial search of Chandra’s apartment, D.C. police found a pair of black panties stained with semen.”

“[Condit] was a handsome, swashbuckling teenager who liked fast cars and found himself in trouble with the law, racking up traffic tickets and a conviction for reckless driving. Despite his penchant for running with a fast crowd, he fell for a girl who lived in the good side of town…”

“Once inside the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Chandra wasn’t interested in dancing. She didn’t want a drink or anything to eat. She and her date climbed the grandiose staircase of the museum and looked out over the crowded dance floor.”

Nor did the series’ authors forget the nuanced vignettes that made the case relatable to a new, younger demographic, one that sees Chandra not simply as a case study in media coverage, but as a peer:

“Dirty dishes in the sink. A refrigerator that was empty except for some leftover pasta and Reese’s peanut butter cups.”

“Chandra had big-city dreams of leaving the flat, dusty town in the middle of nowhere and seeing the world.”

The editors admitted the story’s dramatized prose and format—Downie calls it “the kind of story that would sustain readership over a period of time.” But I wonder whether Downie and his reporters really did mean to elicit a sense of public closure on the issue, targeting those with knowledge of the investigation. While certain new details come to light—aha, the panties were BLACK!—I can’t help but wonder if the Post simply meant to hook another generation onto the Levy-mania nearly a decade forgotten.

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Elizabeth Tuttle is an intern at CJR.