NEW YORK, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Does anybody remember this headline from not too many moons ago?
INVESTIGATORS PROBE HELLS ANGELS LINK. The Hell's Angels link was to none other than ... Gary Condit.
"Condit, who rides a Harley when he is home in his northern California district, has close ties to members of the infamous outlaw bikers, said sources close to the Levy family investigation.
"'These are bad guys to be involved with,' said one investigator."
And then the story goes on to detail Condit's relationship with Vince Flammini, a former aide who used to pal around with motorcycle gang members, and bolsters this front-page story with yet another corroborating source:
"Anne Marie Smith, 39, the flight attendant who says she had a 10-month affair with Condit that ended in May (2001), said she remembers the congressman once telling her he was going to attend an upcoming Hells Angels bash.
"'He told me he had to keep it secret from his brother because it was a birthday party for a cop killer,' Smith told The (New York Daily) News."
In its way, this is an almost perfect story, perfectly reported. It uses at least three sources, including two sources who don't know each other. It reports from the inside of a real investigation. It sets out the specific connections between Condit and the outlaw bikers -- namely, an employee of Condit who, we learn later, taught him to ride motorcycles, and a biker party that took place ... well, the specifics of the party are a little hazy, but the fact that it exists is given credence by the fact that the source is a woman who was intimate with the congressman for 10 months.
There's only one thing wrong with the story: it's a smear.
It's a LEGAL smear, since it doesn't say anything that's not corroborated, and the main source -- Condit himself -- was not talking to the media at the time.
But I bring it up because several of my colleagues were gathered around a table this week discussing the relative importance of the "two-source standard." This is the idea popularized by The Washington Post during the Watergate investigation that you shouldn't report anonymous information unless it's independently verified by two sources.
It works -- unless your sources SUCK.
In this case the "investigators" were actually private snoopers hired by the Levy family. Their motive? Probably to put maximum media attention on the case so that people would come forward with information. Who came forward? People like Anne Marie Smith, the above-referenced flight attendant who made a small career of going on "The Larry King Show" to reveal ever more lurid details about Condit, including the fact that one time she found neckties tied to his bedposts.
Her motive? Probably the motive of all spurned lovers since the beginning of time.
The Levy family motive? Probably the motive of all loving moms and dads since the beginning of time who feel their daughter was used by a rake.
In other words, the story was rotten from the moment of the first phone call placed to the first reporter. It was a smear. A well-crafted, verified smear, but a smear nonetheless.
You have to wonder whether any of the reporters who were all over the Chandra Levy story feel any remorse about what they did to Gary Condit. I doubt it. First of all, reporters are already sociopaths: they don't feel remorse. But even if they did, Condit was a congressman. That alone makes him fair game. He was also a congressman who was not speaking to them. That lowers the bar as to what you can publish. And the unspoken assumption is that a man who cheats on his wife with a flight attendant AND an intern has pretty much given up his right to privacy. (This was established by the Gary Rice investigation, way back when. Before that time, discreet love affairs were not reported.)
Among the other independently verified two-source Gary Condit stories:
1) Chandra Levy was upbeat on the day she disappeared, "like she had something exciting to tell," according to "a source close to the family." (Subtext: Whatever big news she had is what got her killed.)
2) Chandra Levy "may have been pregnant," although "no testing kit was found in her apartment." (This is like saying she "may have had adult on-set diabetes," although "no medical needles were found in her apartment.")
3) After two months of stonewalling, Condit tells investigators "we were lovers." (Media interpretation: he was forced into the open. More mundane explanation: he didn't want his wife to know, but couldn't lie to a cop or a grand jury.)
4) Condit refuses to take a lie detector test. (Subtext: What has he got to hide?)
5) Levy family "feels strongly that Condit's credibility is in question," according to "sources." (You don't really need a source for that one.)
And my personal favorite:
6) Ex-lover "afraid for her life." This was the Anne Marie Smith story in which she said Condit "appeared to be engaging in bizarre, kinky sex with someone." Her attorney's precise quote: "There were neckties tied together underneath the bed as if someone had been tied up in bed. She (Smith) also told me that Condit had some peculiar sexual fantasies that a normal heterosexual male would not have."
In this case the source is a LAWYER representing the spurned lover, and the "afraid for her life" part happened AFTER Chandra Levy disappeared.
In fact, if you look through all the "sources" used to cover the Gary Condit story, almost every single one of them is rotten. It's either a Levy family member, an attorney for the Levy family, an investigator for the Levy family, an ex-lover, or an attorney for the ex-lover. The only time an impartial source spoke -- during the frenzied part of the investigation -- was after police questioned Condit privately. Their announcement to the media: "Cleared as a suspect."
But I know what you're thinking. You're thinking he was NOT cleared as a suspect. Yet he was -- a full two months before 9/11 came along and swept Chandra Levy off the front page. So why don't we remember that particular fact?
Because it was revealed at a police news conference. I guess it wasn't that trustworthy because a) they said it openly, and b) there was only one source.
(Joe Bob Briggs may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)