The Rather Blackout

One of the most baffling

mysteries in the disappearance of 24-year-old Chandra Levy is why CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather has

decided to impose a blackout on reporting the case. In the 11 weeks since Ms.

Levy vanished from her Washington, D.C., apartment, Mr. Rather has allowed only

one report to be broadcast, in stark

contrast to the ample coverage by ABC, NBC and CBS’s other news shows.

Mr. Rather told The New York Times

that he was trying “to stand for what I believe in-decent, responsible

journalism.” 

But why is Mr. Rather using the Levy case as the place to

draw his line in the sand? Out of all the mundane news stories that are

broadcast into America’s living rooms each night-of fires, floods, tax bills,

heat waves-why does this story fall beneath Mr. Rather’s radar screen? One

would be hard-pressed to find any

respectable journalist who would look at the facts of Ms. Levy’s disappearance

and not conclude that it was a valid, important story. You have a missing woman

who was involved in a romantic affair with a U.S. Congressman, Gary Condit-who,

it turns out, may be a serial philanderer, and who has been less than cooperative with the police. One reason we

have a free press is to investigate possible abuses of power on the part

of elected officials. Mr. Rather seems to see only the prurient aspects of the

story and is strangely ignoring the larger picture. If Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton were a major headline for two

years, does not this story-which also involves a prominent political figure,

but which may have the added tragedy of a young woman’s death-deserve more than

one evening’s coverage?

Without any credible philosophical or journalistic precedent

for blacking out the Chandra Levy story, Mr. Rather runs the risk of appearing

to indulge his own pride and ego, inserting his own need for attention in

between the story and CBS viewers. It’s never a good sign when the news anchor

becomes the story and acts more like a censor than a newsman. 

A Compstat for

Schools: It’s About Time

Schools Chancellor

Harold Levy wants the city’s 32 school-district superintendents to meet

regularly with deputies to discuss the district’s performance based on

computerized information. The strategy bears a resemblance to the Compstat

program implemented by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Police Commissioner

Bill Bratton. Compstat gave police brass a comprehensive breakdown of crime

precinct by precinct, and local commanders were held responsible.

The Police Department program is more confrontational than

the system Mr. Levy wishes to implement, and City Hall is upset that Mr. Levy

is shying away from the Compstat model. But

that’s not the real issue. What’s astonishing about this proposal is

that it’s being put forward only now. What has taken the Board of Education so

long to implement such a basic approach to problem-solving?

In the business world, everyone knows that it’s important to

keep in touch with people who run departments, branches and other operations.

(It’s worth noting that Mr. Levy is, in fact, a businessman, not a career

educator.) You can be sure that a chief executive whose company owns 10

factories meets regularly with plant managers. When you’re running a sprawling

operation, it’s important to know what’s

going on at the ground level. It doesn’t take a degree from Harvard

Business School to grasp this idea.

Mr. Levy’s proposal will help improve communication between

the district level and the Board of Education. If anything, it should be made

more rigorous, closer to Compstat. Faced with poor reading scores, why

shouldn’t district supervisors come down hard on those responsible?

Professional educators sniff that they will

not adopt a “paramilitary approach” to city schools. All that suggests

is that they are afraid of being confronted with their own failure.

Mr. Levy is heading in the right direction. How sad, though,

that this program is only just getting started.

Katharine Graham

Katharine Graham, who passed away at age 84 on July 14,

lived one of the most public lives imaginable. Helping bring down a corrupt

President, striking a historic blow for freedom of the press, turning The Washington Post into a top-rate newspaper and a $2 billion business-all this she

accomplished despite personal odds that might have broken the spirit of

most people. She overcame a neglectful,

sexist father, a cold, verbally abusive mother and a husband suffering from

untreated manic-depression who plotted to take control of her shares in The Post and then committed suicide,

leaving her at age 46 with four children and a newspaper to run at a time when

women were invisible in journalism.

Perhaps it was her familiarity with emotional pain, and her

refusal to get bogged down in it, that allowed Graham to make the courageous

decisions that led to her success. She grew up in New York and Washington, a

lonely heiress who went to Vassar College and the University of Chicago. Her

wealthy father would later install her husband, a brilliant lawyer named Philip

Graham, as publisher of The Washington

Post . While Philip Graham did much to strengthen

the paper, it was not until after his death, when Katharine nervously

took control and put the charismatic Ben Bradlee in charge of the paper’s

reporting staff, that The Post became

a formidable power. Her decision to go ahead with publishing the Pentagon

Papers in 1971, despite the objections of a federal judge and the paper’s

attorneys, was a watershed moment in American journalism. So was her

standing up to the Nixon administration the following year, as The Post -alone among major newspapers,

and despite ominous threats from Attorney General John Mitchell-covered the

emerging Watergate scandal, eventually leading to Richard Nixon’s resignation.

And she never lost her verve: Her Washington home became a

storied salon for political and cultural power-brokers, and she won a Pulitzer

Prize at age 80 for her memoir, Personal

History. It says something about her achievement that among the prominent

men and women who gathered to mourn her at National

Cathedral last week, there were none whose names evoke the unconditional

respect and admiration that always followed Katharine Graham.