Pressure Mounts on Novak to Give Full Account of Plame Role

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By: Dave Astor

Until recently, commentators have generally supported Robert Novak’s right to remain silent on his involvement in the leaking of a covert CIA officer’s name. But the mood may be changing.

The Denver Post, in an editorial posted Wednesday on its Web site, urged Novak “to give a public accounting” of what led to his 2003 column outing CIA operative Valerie Plame.

So E&P asked various columnists and editors who run his column if they agreed with the Post’s suggestion.

Richard Reeves does. “Unless there’s some terrible secret that would hurt Robert Novak more than the credibility he has lost, I would think he should write about this,” said the Universal Press Syndicate columnist.

Cal Thomas also feels Novak — who’s with the Chicago Sun-Times and Creators Syndicate — should discuss the Plame matter more. “You can’t be a ‘partial virgin,'” said the Tribune Media Services columnist. “Now that he has spoken about one aspect of the case, he should talk about the rest of it.” Thomas was referring to the Aug. 1 Novak column in which he disputed an ex-CIA spokesman’s statement about the Plame case.

In its editorial, The Denver Post mentioned the recent Novak piece, which the paper published, and added: “Novak has declined to comment further, still mum on his sources and even about whether he has told his story to the grand jury. In writing his Aug. 1 column, Novak ignored his lawyers’ advice to maintain his silence. It was a reasonable decision — his end of the Plame story has been bottled up for too long and Novak has wanted to speak his piece. But it’s not reasonable for the columnist to discuss the Plame matter when it suits him but continue his silence when it doesn’t.”

Thomas said Novak should give a public accounting because “reputations and, in the case of Judith Miller, freedom are on the line. But he may have a deal with the prosecutor. Hopefully, we’ll know all the facts soon.”

Although Novak “may be under no legal obligation to tell the public all he knows about the Plame matter, I believe it would be a public service for him to do so,” added columnist Bill Tammeus of The Kansas City Star and Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. “This has gone beyond a matter of idealistic principle or political intrigue. A journalist [Judith Miller] is doing jail time in this case. It’s not yet clear to me how Novak’s full explanation might change things, but without that public accounting things couldn’t be much worse.”

Others, however, think Novak shouldn’t have to write about the case until he feels ready to do so.

“This is a complicated legal situation,” said Robert A. Kittle, editorial page editor at The San Diego Union-Tribune, a Novak subscriber. “My understanding is that he’s somewhat constricted [in discussing the case] by his lawyer and the special prosecutor. I’m not going to second-guess Robert Novak on this. He’s enough of a journalist that he’s going to [publicly] provide the facts at the earliest opportunity.”

Andrew Cline, editorial page editor of another Novak client, the New Hampshire Union Leader in Manchester, added: “Why would Bob Novak take the advice of an editorial over the advice of his attorney? Until we know what all the details are, I think it’s futile to weigh in on this subject.”

But Creators columnist Norman Solomon had a different take on The Denver Post editorial. “Novak should give a ‘public accounting,’ but not to reveal confidential sources and not in response to legal duress,” he told E&P Online. “The problem with Novak the columnist is not that he revealed the name of a CIA agent but that he has long served as a de facto operative for the Republican Party’s spin machine. … This is far from the first time he has worked hand-in-glove with the likes of Karl Rove. He’s a prime example of elite pundits who routinely appear on network TV and hundreds of Op-Ed pages while spinning to serve powerful partisan interests that hold sway in Washington.”

The number of newspapers subscribing to Novak has remained fairly steady since he revealed Plame’s name two years ago. Should papers drop Novak because of the Plame column of 2003, his refusal to talk much about it since then, the Judith Miller jailing, and/or his Aug. 4 on-air cursing that resulted in a CNN suspension?

“I’d cancel him if I was an editorial page editor,” said Reeves. “He’s hurting the press.” The columnist noted that the press already has plenty of problems, including economic ones and being treated with disdain by the Bush administration. Reeves did say that Novak, while a “crotchety guy,” is a “real talent” who has had a “distinguished career” until recently.

Thomas feels newspapers should keep Novak. “He has a great reputation developed over many years in journalism. I am opposed — self-seeking as it may sound — to any paper dropping any columnist over a single column.”

Tammeus said: “I won’t advise Novak’s client newspapers on what to run or not run. But generally a decision to drop a columnist should not be made on the basis of a single column or single incident involving the columnist but, rather, on a whole host of considerations, including the columnist’s history of accuracy and reader appeal.”

Novak will continue to appear in the Union-Tribune, said Kittle, because “he’s a very seasoned journalist with a lot of sources. Our readers benefit from his column.”

Cline said the Union Leader would keep Novak because “he’s still doing an excellent column. ”

What about the cursing live on CNN? Cline said Novak’s on-air profanity — which occurred as the columnist was about to be asked about the Plame case — was “inappropriate, but he apologized for it.”

Kittle added that Novak deserved to be suspended by CNN, but the foul language didn’t appear in print. “If we didn’t run the columns of journalists who use profanity, we wouldn’t run many columns,” he added wryly.

Solomon commented about Novak’s cursing in an Aug. 5 piece, saying the action “may have been a preemptive strike — a kind of semiconscious work stoppage — to avoid squirming under the hot lights.”

When asked whether Novak should lose subscribers, Solomon replied: “If I were an Op-Ed editor, I wouldn’t run Novak’s column — not because he’s conservative or because of the Plame incident, but because truth-in-packing would require a cumbersome notice to readers that the columnist’s work has been an integral part of the Republican Party’s media-spin apparatus.”

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