ABC's messy role in Condit affair

The network now says one of its reporters -- the subject of tabloid rumors -- claims she never met with Condit the day he claims they did, the day Chandra Levy most likely disappeared.

Published July 14, 2001 1:37AM (EDT)

As the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy affair burst into the full flower of scandal at the end of June, Condit's office provided Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police with a timeline of Condit's activities on the crucial days surrounding Levy's disappearance. Learning of the existence of the timeline, ABC News subsequently requested a copy, and received one from a source in Rep. Condit's office.

What soon became apparent to reporters and producers at ABC News, though, was that there were two critical portions of the timeline that simply did not seem true. And the network struggled with this information for nearly three weeks before fully detailing the nature of the discrepancies during the Wednesday edition of "Nightline."

One of ABC's own off-air reporters had met with Condit about an unrelated matter (the California energy crisis) on the day after Levy's disappearance, May 2. But the timeline provided to ABC News appeared to say that this meeting had occurred on May 1 -- the very day Levy went missing.

Further complicating the matter for ABC were ambiguities surrounding Condit's relationship with the ABC reporter in question. The New York Post has reported (and Fox News trumpeted) that Condit had an affair with an ABC producer and, based on information in the Post, and according to sources within the network, it's clear that this is the same woman who had met with Condit on May 2. The romantic link, however, is firmly and unequivocally denied by the network. "This reporter," an ABC News executive told Salon on Thursday, "has had a professional relationship with Congressman Condit for years, nothing more than that, period."

So the story plays out like this: According to ABC sources, the ABC News off-air reporter met with Rep. Condit at the Tryst restaurant (that's no joke) on May 2, between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., to discuss the California energy crisis. The reporter eventually circulated an e-mail to this effect within ABC's Washington Bureau long before the significance of the meeting became known. Yet the timeline provided by the Condit camp made no mention of this meeting, even though it did cover the day in question.

The Condit timeline did, however, mention another meeting at the same location with an unnamed reporter -- but with one critical difference. Rather than taking place on the afternoon of May 2, the timeline had this meeting taking place between 6:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on May 1. Police place Chandra's last known whereabouts in her apartment early on May 1, in part because of an e-mail she apparently sent from her computer that morning.

Producers and reporters at ABC News could not at first be certain that the purported May 1 meeting was not with some other reporter from another news organization (no names were supplied in the timeline). But they were quite certain that they knew where the congressman was the following afternoon, and that his timeline did not reflect his whereabouts. "We had no way of knowing," the same ABC News executive told Salon on Thursday, "whether this was a sin of omission or commission, or whether there were two different meetings."

Based on the apparent discrepancy, however, ABC immediately contacted both the congressman's office and his legal team. "We went back to his attorney Abbe Lowell's office," said the same ABC News executive. "We said, 'We know there was a meeting with an ABC news reporter but we don't see it on [the timeline].' They told us 'this was just a draft, just a draft of a timeline which is neither complete nor completely accurate.' We asked, 'Who was the meeting with on Tuesday and why isn't there [any mention of a meeting] on Wednesday?' They said they'd get back to us. But we have never gotten an official response." According to another print reporter covering the case, Condit's chief of staff, Mike Lynch, later refused to distribute copies of the timeline to other news organizations, telling the reporter that the timeline contained "mistakes" and that he had been chastised by members of Condit's legal team for releasing the timeline to ABC News.

This back-and-forth with the Condit camp placed ABC News producers in an awkward position. In a strictly factual sense, a source in the congressman's office had provided them with an alibi for his whereabouts on the day of Chandra Levy's disappearance, which they first suspected and then later knew to be false. However, according to the same ABC News executive, they had no way of knowing whether this was an intentional deception or simply an innocent error. Nor could they be certain that the timeline they were given was the same one that had been given to the police -- something that they rightly believed would have amounted to a more serious offense.

Absent some clear evidence of deception rather than error, ABC News executives decided simply to correct the error in the timeline it subsequently published, placing the meeting at the correct May 2 rather than focusing on why the original document had contained such a pivotal misstatement.

On "Good Morning America" on June 29, for instance, ABC reporter Pierre Thomas described the timeline in its original form and then added that "hours after this account was provided by sources close to Condit and first reported by ABC News, the congressman's office called to say the information released was in draft form and contained inaccuracies. They were not specific."

Over the subsequent two weeks, ABC News has slowly revealed more details of this exchange. On Wednesday, Thomas gave a still more precise account of the events in question on "Nightline." The timeline, he noted, said Condit met "with a reporter the evening of May 1st at a local coffee shop, from 6:30 until 7:30. That reporter, who works for ABC News, remembers the meeting taking place the next day. Condit's office immediately [put] out a statement saying the timeline was only a draft. [But] they still have not provided a corrected version."

ABC has, however, still pointedly refrained from questioning whether this was an attempt to create a false alibi on what can only be called the critical day in question. And police continue to refuse to comment on the details of the timeline they were originally given.

No doubt the people at ABC News were placed in a very difficult position. It is not inconceivable that in the rush to get out a timeline of the congressman's activities a simple mistake could have been made. After all, a backbench congressman's office doesn't keep the sort of copious and precise records that a president or even a senator does. And given what the ABC News executive called the "very immediate pull-back" of the story, perhaps it was the better part of wisdom to give Condit's office the benefit of the doubt.

Yet while Condit's lawyers distanced themselves from the timeline shortly after it was given to ABC, they did not do so unprompted. They did so only after ABC called them on an error. And while ABC has altered its timeline, replacing the 6:30 p.m. meeting on May 1 with the one on May 2, they say they have done so without any explicit confirmation from the Condit camp.

Which leaves two big questions: Was Condit trying to juggle his itinerary to create an alibi? And just what was Gary Condit doing between 6:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on May 1?

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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