Her name was Chandra Levy. Sound familiar? She was a 24-year old intern in Washington D.C. who disappeared 20 years ago. When her remains were found a suspect was looked at but then dismissed when the focus turned to the revelation that Levy had been having an affair with a married Congressman.
The media glare was unrelenting and the story dominated news coverage, driven not by the investigation into her murder but rather into her relationship with the Congressman. He was cleared of any involvement (he was with the Vice President at the time of the murder) but the resulting scandal that he might have been obstructing justice to cover up the affair with Levy, along with another affair, is credited with playing a role in his failed bid for a sixth term the following year.
The summer of 2001 likely featured a lot of newsworthy events but coverage never let up on Levy and the affair. The remains of other women were discovered in the same area where Levy was found, but neither their names nor their stories were followed up nearly to the same extent. The public appetite was just not there as it was for the one whose narrative was now defined by her relationship with the Congressman.
In 2008, investigative reports by The Washington Post led police to look at a person of interest it had previously dismissed. That suspect was indicted on six counts including first-degree murder and he was sentenced to 60 years in prison. Six years ago he was granted a new trial but prosecutors chose not to proceed with the case and instead had him deported to his native El Salvador.
Chandra Levy had a family who loved her and friends who admired her. She earned a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism and a Master's Degree in Public Administration and successfully secured internships in different levels of government. One of her supervisors commented on her impressive handling of the media which is ironic since it wouldn't be too long before she would become the object of their intense scrutiny. News broadcasts, tabloids and talk shows were filled with anything that could be connected to her story because it was a ratings boon. In the summer of 2001, 63% of Americans said they were closely following the nation-wide story. Media camped out in front of the Levy home as well as the Congressman's apartment and a discussion of newsworthy versus sensationalist coverage ensued as news outlets grappled with trying to satiate the public's voracious appetite.
That is until September 11, 2001 when the terrorist attacks pushed it off the front page.
As people dealt with life post-9/11, they talked about a reshuffling of priorities and a desire to no longer pander in the sensational or scandalous but instead to engage in authentic interaction and to focus attention on those who earned acclaim. Heroes would be those who lived lives in service to others. Newsmakers would be those striving to enrich the community. No more time wasted on the salacious when it was more important than ever to laud the civil.
Sound familiar? Many of those same reflections have been happening as people consider their experiences during the pandemic. The intent is good. The question that follows would be: how long it will last?
There were about 100 babies born after their fathers died in the attacks on September 11, 2001. They graduated during the pandemic and it's not lost on them that they entered the world during a global crisis and graduated during one as well. Their lives have been a focus of media interest, particularly as anniversary milestones roll around and serve as a reminder of what they lost. But of course other babies were born at that time, and people died in other ways on that day, too. Those births and deaths haven't been documented the same way, yet they are no less important and no less cherished by those who love them.
Chandra Levy's murder remains unsolved. Following her death her family and others worked at consolidating resources for missing women so that they could be accessed more efficiently. I wish we could say the other legacy of her story is pushback against finding glee (and profit) in defining someone by the lurid and the scandalous, but regrettably it has not. Rather, we have seen this explode to massive proportions thanks to the multitude of programs, platforms and profilers striving to capture our attention.
An event 20 years ago was impetus for reflection and a reset. Two decades later the pandemic is doing the same. Maybe this time we will do better. That's my outlook.