Chung's questions, and the congressman's evasions, made for lurid viewing, says Ken Tucker

By Ken Tucker
Updated August 24, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Gary Condit: Stephen J. Boitano/AP/Wide World

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”PrimeTime”’s Condit Q&A was a TV low point

Well, what did you expect?

Did you really think Connie Chung was going to wring some wracked-sob confession out of U.S. Rep. Gary Condit Thursday night? Did you really think this was going to be a great night for American journalism in the investigation of the disappearance of Chandra Levy? Or did you know it would be what it proved to be: a battle between two public figures with two different agendas (Condit to prove he’s is a good-hearted lamb; Chung to remind us that she is still a media player, still the pro journo who seven years ago kneecapped the kneecapping skater Tonya Harding). Last night, we witnessed two icy personalities, each trying to make the other person freeze up and shatter.

That didn’t happen, of course. This being TV-event news, it required a title: ABC’s ”PrimeTime Thursday” chose ”Gary Condit: Breaking His Silence,” even as America was coming up with its own (”Gary Condit: Growing a Longer Nose,” or ”Chandra Levy: How Much Longer Will She Be Exploited?”). Chung started out like a battering ram, asking Condit if he had had an affair with Levy; if he was in love with her. He said he wasn’t in love, but declined to address the notion of an affair, invoking some vague wish to abide by the wishes of the Levy family that he not go into such details. As the half-hour interview proceeded, Chung’s will seemed to sap; she started asking him easily batted-away softballs such as ”What has all of this done to you and your family?,” vamping for time with the question, ”Would you like to tell the truth about your relationship with her?”

Later, on ”Nightline,” Ted Koppel, who’s intelligent enough to always avoid the rosy smile, nonetheless supplied his standard tautology: criticizing the rapacious media while feeding its drooling maw.

Koppel’s comment that, whenever there’s a garish scandal in America, ”sooner or later there has to be an accounting on television,” made it sound as if some sort of national referendum has been passed on this matter. If, as some argue, TV has kept this investigation alive through its incessant coverage (which has spiked ratings for some news shows, particularly the cable news networks during the dog days of summer), this TV spectacle would seem to have added nothing to any law enforcement organization’s effort to solve this disappearance. It was less an ”accounting” than a performance, on both sides.

I don’t know what was more revolting: Condit telling us four times that he has been married for 34 years (as if marriage equals fidelity equals morality equals innocence), or the rosy smiles Chung and ”PrimeTime” host Charles Gibson exchanged at the end of the program (the grins of TV reporters who have bagged what they call in the biz a big ”get”). They ”got” Condit, all right. Actually, I DO know what was the worst moment: It was when Condit said, ”Chandra is not here to defend herself,” implying that there was something SHE had to hide, or explain, or excuse. It was at that moment that I thought, ”Boy, you may be innocent of a crime, but you are a pig.”

It was, more than anything else, a terribly sad spectacle: Expert, almost impersonal jousting about a likely human tragedy. And soon after ”PrimeTime” and ”Nightline” had signed off, the tragedy was once again reduced to pop culture dross: There was ”Politically Incorrect,” with guest ”Super Dave” Osborn saying, ”You know the first question that should have been asked? ‘Connie, why did you marry Maury Povich?”’ Ha-ha.

What did you think?

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