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COVERAGE of missing intern case a preoccupation on some networks, not on others

Updated:
NEW YORK (AP) _ If you watch cable news networks, with the drumbeat of ``Where's Chandra?'' headlines, you'd think the disappearance of a Washington intern was all the country was talking about.

Yet if you relied on the ``CBS Evening News'' to know what's going on, you wouldn't even know Chandra Levy was missing.

For television networks, the story of Chandra Levy and U.S. Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., is reviving arguments about restraint and taste among news organizations with vastly different opinions on how to treat the story.

``It seems to me there's been a complete suspension of doubt, fairness and objectivity in this story,'' said Jim Murphy, executive producer of the ``CBS Evening News.''

To date, Dan Rather's broadcast hasn't mentioned a word about the story. Murphy said he was reserving that for a major development in the case _ if Levy or her body were found, for instance, or if Condit was named a suspect in her disappearance by police.

He and Rather discuss the story all the time, most recently Tuesday morning, he said.

``We both know at some point we have to report this story, but we both feel that to this point, it's been a circus,'' Murphy said.

ABC's ``World News Tonight'' has mentioned the story only twice _ once at length last Friday when it had exclusive information about the congressman's cell phone records. NBC's ``Nightly News'' has done 10 stories on the case.

``This story has touched a national nerve,'' said Steve Capus, executive producer of ``Nightly News.'' ``It is an ongoing mystery as to what has happened to her, and there are the continued questions about a member of Congress. It is a legitimate story and when our very high threshold has been met, we've done the story.''

Paul Slavin, executive producer of ``World News Tonight,'' said he believed the story has been overcovered. He decides on a day-to-day basis what to report.

``I think there are things that are more important, that are more worthy of our time,'' Slavin said. ``But I don't have an admonition that says I'm not going to cover that story. That seems sort of foolish. You're staking out some ground that I don't see a point in staking out.''

The story, with its ``soap opera'' aspects, is more suited to network morning shows, which have more time to fill, he said.

ABC's ``Good Morning America'' has devoted 56 minutes to the story since it first broke. NBC's ``Today'' has done 45 minutes and CBS' ``The Early Show'' 39 minutes, according to Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who measures network news coverage.

Major newspapers have been relatively cautious in giving the case front-page attention. USA Today ran a front-page piece on Monday with Levy's family asking that Condit be given a lie detector test, one of a package of three stories that took up two-thirds of an inside page.

The New York Post had a front-page headline Tuesday, ``Condit `Kinky Sex.''' It was a report about a woman claiming she was Condit's lover and saying she was suspicious of some of his sexual habits.

The cable news networks continued their heavy coverage on Tuesday, although perhaps with a little less single-mindedness. One new navel-gazing element: CNN and MSNBC both did segments on media coverage of the story.

Fox News Channel did one segment titled ``Sex Secrets,'' based on information that was in the New York Post story.

``I don't think it's a question of overkill,'' said Ramon Escobar, MSNBC's executive producer in charge of daytime programming. ``I think cable news is particularly well-positioned to really be thorough and provide context for stories.

``When we do that, we become easy targets for people who say, `look at them, they're obsessing.''' he said. ``We're not just obsessing about it. We've had a mix of other stories.''

Keith McAllister, CNN's senior vice president of national newsgathering, said the public is interested in what the Levy family is going through. The story of Condit, who admitted to an affair with the intern, resonates with what's gone on in Washington in recent years, he said.

Tyndall, however, called the cable news networks irresponsible.

``This story is not about `where's Chandra Levy,''' he said. ``It's about a congressman's sex life. They're trying to make a scandal out of what are very thin strands here.''

CBS' Murphy said journalists get very few chances to take a stand on principle.

Still, he's getting bombarded with notes from both sides of the issue within his own news organization. And in a competitive business, he realizes the risks of making a wrong call.

``Hopefully, I'll still be employed in a few months,'' he said.
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