When news puts ratings before the truth, the truth hurts

Sunday, August 12, 2001 at 10:00pm

It's numbing: The mindless television panels go on and on about the smallest details in the Condit-Levy matter. Yet there is a hardcore audience of about a million Americans that float from cable news program to cable news program desperately seeking Chandra. This audience is enough to spike a program's ratings and deliver a competitive edge to those that pander to the Chandra mania.

I know what I'm talking about because, as the anchorman of The O'Reilly Factor program on the Fox News Channel, I see the audience ratings every day. And those ratings are broken down minute by minute so you can see how many people are flowing to Chandra. There is simply no question that "all Chandra, all the time" has paid off for some people.

For example, Geraldo Rivera has risen from the ratings grave with his wall-to-wall coverage of the case. Larry King has increased his audience by doing entire programs on the daily information in the case, which is usually reed thin. And a few of the primetime programs at Fox have increased their ratings as well.

Because this is a free country, there was nothing inherently wrong with this saturation coverage until last week. If you don't like the Condit-Levy story, you are, of course, free to watch something else. But something very disturbing happened when rumors of an Internet tip surfaced and television news got hold of them.

You may remember the story. Some Web site received a tip that a female body was buried outside of Richmond, Va. Well, like every other journalist, I immediately locked in on the situation, and it took me about five minutes to find out it was bogus. The tip was bogus; the police reaction was bogus; the story was a fraud. So I told my audience that and went on to other things.

When the overnight ratings rolled in the next day, I got my clock cleaned. To my horror, a number of news outlets reported the Internet tip story as real. How could they have not known it was a hoax? Everything about the story screamed illegitimate. How could they take the thing seriously?

The answer to that story, in my opinion, is shocking. I believe that certain TV news outlets knew nobody was buried under a parking lot in Virginia and ran with the story anyway. They basically hoodwinked the audience into thinking something important was unfolding. And the audience bought it. The programs that devoted a major amount of time discussing the Internet tip situation did very well indeed.

Now, you may think this is sour grapes on my part, but I will reply that delivering news you know to be bogus is a news felony. There have been some very legitimate and important aspects to the Condit-Levy matter, but taking a fake tip seriously is simply dishonest.

People who watch the news put their faith in the people reporting it. If we are going to start selling them fake stories for short-term ratings gains, then we are really in trouble.

And that's what happened.

If I could find out the story was fake, everybody else could find it out. Believe me, it wasn't hard. A few specific questions to the Web site people and to the authorities, and the true picture emerged. Nobody was buried under the concrete.

In the beginning, the disappearance of Chandra Levy and Gary Condit's lies had national implications. The story is still a mystery, and thus still has an appeal for some. But now the cable networks are more interested in ratings than in the truth. And that is the truth. And it hurts.

TV news anchor Bill O'Reilly is host of the Fox News show The O'Reilly Factor.

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