By: Dave Astor
Robert Novak received a lot of criticism and some support when he outed CIA operative Valerie Plame in his column of July 14, 2003. But what do people think about Novak’s actions since then?
That question became especially germane when the Chicago Sun-Times/Creators Syndicate commentator wrote a column last Wednesday designed to explain his behavior during special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation of the Plame case. So E&P asked various columnists what they thought of Novak’s July 12 piece.
“I wonder whether Mr. Novak has an editor,” said National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC) President Mike Argento. “In his column, he writes that he decided not to give up his sources and then, a few sentences later, he writes that he gave them up when questioned by Fitzgerald. Which is it? I know he says Fitzgerald knew who his sources were, but still, he named them.”
The York (Pa.) Daily Record columnist added: “To maintain credibility with readers, columnists have to write honest columns. It’s not our job to be an errand boy for politicians seeking vengeance against enemies. It used to be that confidential sources sought to blow the whistle against abuses of power. Now, at least in this instance, they’re used to abuse power and to allow those in power to assault enemies without leaving evidence.”
Argento said he thinks Novak’s July 12 column was “a failed attempt to restore whatever credibility he had before the episode began. He seeks to have it both ways — to appear to be a champion of a free press and to appear to have cooperated with authorities. I’m not buying it.”
But San Diego Union-Tribune/Washington Post Writers Group columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. believes Novak acted appropriately after the 2003 column outing Plame.
“I admit that, for a while there, I was part of the journalistic lynch mob that wanted him to reveal his sources,” recalled Navarrette. “But now I realize that was an unfair request, and one that I’d be reluctant to honor myself were I in those shoes. According to what’s in his [July 12] column, once he wound up in a pickle, Novak consulted his lawyers, weighed his options, and, in the end, caught a lucky break when he learned that the special prosecutor already knew the identity of his sources.”
Navarrette, however, did emphasize that Novak shouldn’t have written the July 14, 2003, piece. He said Novak was wrong to reveal Plame’s name in that column, and “allowed himself to be used as a pawn by an administration intent on going after a political enemy — Joe Wilson — by dragging his wife into the mess. That was the unforgivable sin.”
NSNC Vice President Samantha Bennett, referring to a “Leave It to Beaver” character, said: “Novak’s whole convoluted explanation of his behavior is another page out of the ‘Eddie Haskell Sucking Up to Authority for Access and Self-Exoneration’ handbook. Another user of that handbook was Bill ‘oral sex isn’t really sex’ Clinton. To be fair to Novak, I’m sure he has said just exactly what he was told to say.”
Bennett, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, added: “It’s funny how it’s OK for Bob Novak to tell secrets, but not The New York Times. The First Amendment applies to everybody, or it applies to nobody.”
Creators columnist Norman Solomon observed that Novak “plays it both ways — shoe-leather reporter and de facto GOP operative.”
Solomon added: “Ever since his column named Plame, he has gone through a convoluted process of behind-the-scenes legal maneuvers and public posturing calculated to take care of number one while aiding the Rove operation as much as possible under the circumstances. This guy wasn’t exactly Captain Courageous for journalistic principle when he talked to the prosecutor and then the grand jury.”
E&P also contacted eight other columnists (including a number of conservatives) for their thoughts on Novak’s July 12 piece. They either declined to comment or could not yet be reached.