Robert Novak complained that Valerie Plame would lead his obituary. As the self-styled Prince of Darkness would have reminded that sniveling twit, “Who the hell’s to blame for that? It’s his own damned fault.”
Like MarketWatch media critic Jon Friedman, I’ll shed no tears for Novak. It’s not just because of Novak’s reactionary, sanctimonious political pontificating, but his brand of journalism spanning the eras from dueling city dailies to cable television’s punditocracy.
In the days of ink, Novak’s approach – officials were either sources or targets – belies his admirers’ cliam that he was first and foremost a shoe leather reporter. His column with Rowland Evans wasn’t about policy or substance. The pair produced the Washington equivalent of a gossip column, bonding the establishment, regardless of views, as it created mystique and aura around politics and its players, including its chroniclers.
Being part of story was a constant for Novak, making him a natural for the talk TV trenches. I worked at CNN in Washington during the heyday of Crossfire, so occasionally ran into him around the newsroom. Novak was as full of himself off-camera as on. That’s because his stage was all of Washington and fanning its importance brightened his own star. The spread of his brand of uncompromising ideological self-righteousness has helped to poison the national debate and paralyze government, particularly because the Washington bubble of bonhomie insulates its pompous practitioners from the consequences of their own actions while the country suffers.
Many praise Novak for his reporting pedigree, noting how that set him apart from fellow pundits. While it is amusing to think of Ann Coulter hunting for facts, Novak, at least in recent decades, was hardly an honest reporter. Rather than diverging from his journalism career, the Plame story was the natural conclusion of it: self-important celebrity columnist gets used by high level sources for a hatchet job on a political enemy. Novak didn’t investigate the main point of the leak, that Plame lobbied for her husband, former ambassador James Wilson, to examine claims Saddam Hussein obtained uranium from Africa. Wilson found the claims groundless and said so publicly when the Bush administration publicly misrepresented his findings. When Vice President Dick Cheney fed Novak the Plame story to discredit Wilson, Novak just licked the plate clean. Despite breaking the law, Novak managed to protect himself while other journalists were subpoenaed and even jailed for his offense.
Still, you couldn’t say that the Prince of Darkness had an ethical lapse in the Plame affair. It had been years since he had any ethics at all.
Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.