The country has been inundated with news about Chandra Levy, the missing Washington intern. The coverage has seemed almost nonstop on cable television news, and the story has been Topic A on the chat shows. Even Dan Rather, who had resisted covering what he considered a tabloid story, had to give in and let his news show include a summary of the search for Ms. Levy and the initial reluctance of Representative Gary Condit to help Washington police by talking with them about his last meetings with her.
The relentless, sensational coverage might make observers despair about the tastes and values of the American public. But in fact, most Americans are not captivated by the Chandra Levy story.
The latest nationwide news interest survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press finds only 16 percent of Americans “very interested” in the story — a low number not only in absolute terms, but compared with the percentages of people highly interested in other celebrity scandals that we have polled about over the years: the O. J. Simpson story had 48 percent of respondents “very interested” at its peak, and the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal had 36 percent.
Even less prominent incidents generated more intense interest than Chandra Levy’s disappearance: for example, the “very interested” figure was 32 percent for both Mike Tyson’s rape trial and Marion Barry’s legal problems, and 27 percent for William Kennedy Smith’s rape trial in Florida.
So what’s going on here? Are the news executives misguided about what appeals to their audiences? The answer is no. Television news producers get instant feedback from the ratings, and they know what makes the needle move. But at the same time, what works for cable television shows watched by relatively small audiences does not necessarily have broad public appeal.
A central problem in television journalism today is that audiences are so fragmented that it takes only a small increase or decrease to make a big economic difference to the networks. If a cable show regularly draws 600,000 viewers, an increase to 900,000 is a very big deal. And all that’s required is a story that appeals to the minority of the public that is attracted to news about celebrities in trouble — regardless of disinterest or even outrage about extensive coverage from the majority of the public.
There is a tabloid audience that goes from one saga to the next. Last year, at the height of the Elian Gonzales news craze, a nationwide Pew survey found that an extraordinary 61 percent of that story’s core audience had also been strongly attracted to news about the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. in a plane crash in 1999. The overlaps did not stop there: fully 73 percent of those drawn to news about Mr. Kennedy had been close followers of the unending accounts of the untimely death of Britain’s Princess Diana in 1997. And it comes as no surprise that large percentages of each of these core audiences had also been closely attentive to the O. J. Simpson murder trial and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.
Our poll found that one-third of the public followed three or more of these stories — about Elian, Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Simpson, Princess Diana, and Mr. Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky — very closely. The vast majority of the public (67 percent) was much less interested: 34 percent gave none of these tabloid best-seller stories a lot of attention, and 33 percent were closely attentive to only one or two of them.
So far the Chandra Levy audience has not matched those for the tabloid heavyweights of the recent past, but these are slow news times even on the tabloid scene. The Levy-Condit story has become prominent enough to bring many of the commentators whose faces became so familiar in the O. J. Simpson case back to the TV screen.
Cable news and talk shows and the print tabloid media have little to lose and much to gain in the short run by pitching to the hard-core audience for celebrities’ misfortunes. But past surveys show the vast majority of the public is put off by coverage of these stories that is so extensive as to be inescapable for viewers.
Most Americans blanch at the blatant exploitation of the people being covered, and they indicate in surveys that they feel the press pursues stories like these not to protect the public interest, but to enlarge audiences. These same surveys show significant numbers of Americans doubting the worth of the traditional watchdog role of the press.
One can only question the wisdom of alienating a large percentage of a public that now has the ability to screen out the news it does not want by turning to the Internet. And despite the short-term gains from the tabloid news coverage, cable and broadcast news audiences continue to decline.