Revisiting The Proxy Witch

by digby

It's interesting to watch the coverage of the imminent arrest of a suspect in the Chandra Levy murder after all these years. It's especially interesting to see the media conveniently forget to mention that they conducted a shrieking witchhunt against Gary Condit and ran him out of town, tarring him as not just an adulterer (fair enough) but as a murderer as well.

He was a dastardly white haired Democrat who'd had an affair with a younger woman, behavior that until Bill Clinton got a couple of hummers, was completely tolerated in the village as a perk of the job. They were Very Upset that Clinton "got away" with something they had determined was now out of bounds and so when Condit's girlfriend disappeared and they realized what they had in him, he became the proxy witch, ripe for burning.

And a Village witch hunt it was. Frank Rich wrote snarky columns about it. Locals were upset about the neighborhood being tainted:

REP. GARY CONDIT is my neighbor. He lives around the corner, but I never knew that until reporters, photographers, TV cameramen and their bulky trucks started to clog up the intersection a block away from my home.

We haven't had so many crowds around here since Adams-Morgan Day, a neighborhood festival that takes place every summer when the streets are blocked off and local vendors sell their wares -- fried plantains, jerk chicken, barbecue, spicy sausages and fried dough. You want multicultural, come on to my house.

Adams Morgan -- ask any of us -- is the hippest neighborhood in Washington, with lively clubs, bars, shops and cafes. Not many politicians choose to live here because it's a little earthy for the folks back home. But it's not hard to understand why a cool family-man congressman from Modesto, Calif., would find it a fun place to be. It's a neighborhood with lots of swinging singletons.

Many families live here, too, and the local moms recently organized a playground behind the apartment house where Gary Condit lives. We've had our share of crime, from purse snatchings and burglaries to rape and even murder, but in general we think we live in a safe community, for an urban neighborhood. We resent it when our streets are the focus of a search for a missing person.

But if we're angry about the invasion of reporters and photographers, we're as interested as everybody else in the answer to the question the reporters ask: "What happened to Chandra Levy?'' We take the story personally; it's our very own story out of "Law and Order'' and we already have the set and we can imagine costumes. But we haven't a clue to how it ends...

Bill Clinton dulled our senses, and Gary Condit has sharpened them. This sordid episode reminds us how treacherous the road of deception, how exorbitant the cost of concealment, how terrible the burden borne by constituents, staff workers and loved ones, beginning with the first lie. The poet got it right: "Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.''

(These villagers are so deep ...)

They used the same lame explanations as they had in the Lewinsky matter ("it's not about the sex, it's about the lies") but because this one featured an actual crime, they soon went into a frenzy of unwarranted speculation and truly hideous character assassination, pretty much calling the man a murderer on television night after night. It was as if every reporter in DC morphed into the vicious and somewhat distrubed Nancy Grace.

Here's just one random exchange I found on Mr Google. It's fairly representative of the kind of thing that was being said night after night (and as it happens featured Grace herself:)

KING: Every host wants to say this: This just in! CNN has learned that Gary Condit has agreed to help the FBI create a profile of Chandra Levy. Apparently, within next few days he will sit down with FBI profilers. Good sign, Mark?

GERAGOS: Of course it is. And that just shows that he is cooperating. He's given three interviews. Now he's going to go to the FBI. He's going to cooperate with a profiler, although we were talking at break, you know, profilers are generally pretty much the end of the line. If you hit psychics you know you have hit rock bottom.

KING: But he has agreed to sit with them. Impress you?

GRACE: Yes, I'm very impressed. I'll be even more impressed when he sits down for that polygraph, a real polygraph. Word I heard today regarding the door-to-door attempt by police. It seemed to be the press was suggesting something nefarious, something evil, that certain people in the apartment building where Levy lived have not responded to police. That is not that unusual. Larry, I have done many, many door-to-door canvassing the neighborhoods, knock, knock, knock. People that think they don't know anything don't call back, and they don't realize they could be withholding evidence.

DEPAULO: I know people who live in the building who have called the police and have not gotten a return call!

KING: Are you impressed though that he's going to meeting with profilers?

DEPAULO: I think it is too little too late, quite frankly.

KING: You do?


KING: You are not even willing to give...

GERAGOS: She won't even give --- she wouldn't even give him that much. I mean the fact that the guy is going in there again, he is going to meet with the FBI, he's going to give them a profile.


KING: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Michael, for him, he's going to sit down with profilers.

ZELDIN: We have all agreed that the moral thing for him to do is to fully cooperate. If this is a step toward full cooperation then we all should be applauding him. And there is nothing short of that. And good for him.

KING: Does that impress you, Cynthia?

ALKSNE: I'll believe it when I see it. GERAGOS: Spoken like a true ex-federal prosecutor.

ALKSNE: Let's make sure really happens before we get, you know, hand out too many roses. This is a guy when the cops were going to try to do one of the interviews to him, first of all, it wasn't a good time. and the cops left.

One time they said, well he wasn't in Congress, they didn't know where he was. And one time he was too busy, and now it turned out he'd had a, you know, worked out and had a three-hour lunch. So I will believe it when I see it.

DEPAULO: And also it's been four days now since they've been talking about the fourth interview. And this is -- and put yourself in the position of the Levy family. Every time there is a promise that he is going to talk again. Then there is two more weeks...

GERAGOS: He's talked three times. He's just agreed that he's just agreed that he's going to go help the FBI do a profile. Give the guy a break. And the same time you are apologizing for the people who don't want to get involved, who are sitting in the apartment building, and the landlord has to send out a little flier that says please help.

DEPAULO: Mark, we can't all live by the morals of a defense attorney.

GERAGOS: Except the morals of the defense attorney is not why we are here. We are here because generally we are either law enforcement people or people who are in the criminal justice system. He wants priests, he can he get five priests to come here and talk about it.

DEPAULO: If Chandra was your lover, best -- good friend and constituent...

GERAGOS: Would I call the police and tell them she was missing? Yes, just like Gary Condit did? Yes. Would I get interviewed three times just like Gary Condit did? Yes. Would I throw away a watch case that somebody else may have given me? Probably not. I mean, I won't go there.

But, at the same time, when you are under that kind of scrutiny, when you've got this kind of attention and media focus, you freeze. It is not the first time somebody has frozen

KING: Going to get another break and we'll come right back with our panel.

Lisa DePaulo is supposed to be a reporter.

It was a sickening display. I never cared about Condit personally (he was a Blue Dog jerk as a politician and took too long to accept that he had been caught with his pants down.) But I figured that if his constituents didn't want an "adulterer" in office they had a right to elect someone else and until the police actually arrested him, he was entitled to a presumption of innocence. But watching the press destroy the man on the basis of their "gut feeling" that he wasn't behaving according to their lofty standards was disgusting --- and yet another example of how their immaturity and shallowness rips away at the fabric of our constitutional system. It shouldn't take one of the loathed defense attorneys to point out that someone is innocent until proven guilty. In that exchange you had both the press and the Barbizon School of former prosecutors heaping such derision on Condit that if he had ever been charged he couldn't have gotten a fair trial. It was a terrible case of professional malpractice in both the fields of journalism and the law.

If you want to read the anatomy screaming village witchhunt in all its glory, read The Daily Howler archives for the summer of 2001. Somerby covered this event at the time with his usual thoroughness, pointing out not just the prosecutorial attitude, but detailing the lazy, sloppy reporting in which they often engaged as they pontificated about immorality and murder.

Not that I'm expecting anyone to go back and reevaluate their behavior. That simply isn't done. But it's there for anyone who wants to know why nobody trusts the media or why people have such a terrible time understanding even the most fundamental tenets of our legal system. They had him convicted of murder. And he wasn't guilty.

This is how Guantanamo happens and the public shrugs its collective shoulders, unsurprised and cynical. They have to accept that the important people just *know* who's guilty and who isn't and that the system is actually just a show for the folks. That's how we treat it.