A 13-Part Series to Love or Hate

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Chandra Levy series, on Page 1 for 13 days, has provoked these kinds of comments: Lurid! Appalling! A waste of time! And these: Fascinating! Totally hooked! Riveting!

No investigation in my 2 1/2 years here has provoked such sharply opposing reader comment as the series on the seven-year-old unsolved murder of the Washington intern, who was having an affair with a congressman.

All but two of the approximately 75 readers who called or wrote to me were critical of the project; by Friday, in the online comments posted with stories, critics outnumbered fans about 410 to 70.

Yet it was clear from e-mails to the reporters -- Sari Horwitz, Scott Higham and Sylvia Moreno -- that many readers were engrossed. The series was phenomenally popular online, outpacing other recent investigative series. And, for the first time, Post reporters engaged with readers in an online dialogue through a daily Reporter's Notebook; the comments (more than 500, but with many repeaters) were mostly positive.

The critics said The Post was turning tabloid and decried the series as a waste of newsprint and time. Many readers cited other issues they felt were far more worthy of a year-long investigation; almost all said that 12 parts and an epilogue were far too much, especially on Page 1.

Each day's installment revealed new facts based on interviews and thousands of pages of documents never before accessed. Yet readers who contacted me saw the series as a rehash with little new. The suspect that the series points to, Ingmar A. Guandique, was named in a Post story in 2002 and is serving time in prison for assault. Today, a list of the most important new facts will be posted online in the Reporter's Notebook.

Philip Evans of Kensington, who said the Post "is capable of extraordinary investigative reporting," wrote that he had "learned nothing new of any importance that could not have been fully reported in a single news story" and that the series "pushes real news off Page 1 for two weeks."

Readers pointed to other murder and missing-persons cases and wondered why The Post focused on Levy. I think it's clear that it was because there was a media frenzy over her affair with Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.), who was driven from office. Mark Handel of the District wrote: "The articles discussing him really should have noted clearly, and at the top, that in the end basically no evidence was found implicating him in any foul play."

The series pointed out the horrible error in police communication that kept Levy's body from being discovered for months. But it was no surprise to the readers who wrote me about other errors by District police and the U.S. Park Police.

Other readers loved the serial format and looked forward to opening the paper each day for the next installment. Ginny Hines Parry of Alexandria wrote: "As the mother of two teenage daughters, I am very thankful that the Washington Post has so thoroughly reviewed the case and placed the resultant stories prominently on the front page. . . . The parents of the young woman believed that their daughter would return home safely. And, failing that, the parents wanted to trust that those responsible for killing their only daughter would be brought to justice. They are still waiting. And so is the public."

Those who liked the series hung on every word, had their own theories and said they learned from the behind-the-scenes approach. Robert Thompson of South Riding wrote to one of the reporters: "If your series on Chandra Levy doesn't win some sort of prestigious award it will be a crime. This is by far and away some of the best writing I've ever read in The Post. You should be proud of this one. It's so intriguing and riveting."

Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor for investigations, said, "It is a good reader and it is D.C.'s most famous unsolved murder, but more importantly it is an accountability piece about egregious District and Park Police screw-ups. It is also a tale of the tabloid and mainstream press pack journalism that helped derail the investigation. The series was conceived as both an ongoing evolution of the way we do projects and an attempt to experiment with new forms on the Web. From the beginning, the motivation and purpose was police accountability as well as trying to get to the bottom of why a famous murder remained unsolved."

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