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Friday, 24 May, 2002, 10:18 GMT 11:18 UK
Levy soap opera puts press in lather
The press camped out at the Levy's home

In decades to come students of early 21st century American culture will learn much from the events of 22 May 2002.

The American president was preparing for a historic visit to Moscow, the ghosts of the civil rights struggle were being laid to rest in an Alabama courtroom, and US diplomats were wrestling with the fall-out from another suicide bomb in Israel.

Gary Condit under the spotlight
But all of that was just background noise.

On the cable TV news shows, in internet chat-rooms and around office water-coolers only one thing mattered: Chandra Levy was back.

Except of course she was not. Twenty four-year-old Chandra is dead, her skeletal remains were found in a Washington park more than a year after she went missing.

Remember those days of American innocence before 11 September?

Back then Chandra Levy's disappearance and subsequent revelations about her romantic liaison with California Congressman Gary Condit had been hot news. Red hot news.

Parents alone

TV new networks prided themselves on being "All Chandra, All The Time".

Chandra Levy
Chandra Levy: Macabre discovery
But that was then, not now. The attack on the Twin Towers seemed to have a profound effect on the national zeitgeist.

Suddenly America was at war. People thirsted for information from far-off countries with unpronounceable names.

The tawdry world of "true crimes" celebrity journalism became an instant turn-off.

And so, for eight months, Chandra's parents were left alone with their fears and their flickering hope.

Until 22 May, when word of a macabre discovery in Rock Creek Park had the nation's newshounds a-yapping and a-yelping with unrestrained excitement.

Forget the "new seriousness" - Americans were ready for another edition of their favourite soap.

TV 'ghouls'

Inevitably, Chandra's mother learned through TV news that her daughter's remains had been found.

The search for clues goes on
Scores of reporters were stationed close to the scene of the discovery, dozens more went to the Levy's house.

There was, of course, virtually nothing to say. The police were waiting for the medical examiner to do his work.

The Levy family despatched a lawyer to make a statement, and Congressman Condit let it be known that Chandra's loved ones were in his prayers.

"There is no level of ghoulishness too embarrassing for the tabloid instincts of television news," concluded Robert Lichter from the Washington Center for Media and Public Affairs.

"'9/11 [11 September] showed TV's capacity for rising to the occasion, but it still has the capacity to sink to any occasion too."

As if to confirm that observation, the Chandra coverage droned on with real news reduced to a "crawl" at the bottom of the TV screen.

The words "Indian PM threatens Pakistan" drifted past without comment - cameras remained trained on a patch of unremarkable undergrowth in Washington DC.

"This is the way the world ends," wrote T S Eliot, "not with a bang but a whimper."

He must have seen the Chandra story coming.

See also:

24 May 02 | Americas
23 May 02 | Americas
14 Aug 01 | Americas
11 Jul 01 | Americas
06 Mar 02 | Americas
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