“I may have called you a douchebag… but I only said those things because I honestly think you’re a horrible person!” — John Stewart
Robert Novak’s unseemly brand of journalism should have been amply demonstrated by his role in publishing the identity of an active undercover CIA agent, exposing her and multiple other agents around the world to life-threatening danger. In how many professions, after all, would a person be allowed to cause the type of damage and danger that Novak’s revelations caused and still be allowed to keep their job? In how many professions would it matter whether or not the individual who caused the damage knew or did not know the damage he was causing in deciding whether that individual would continue his duties, “business as usual?”
At a certain level of professionalism, one becomes responsible to take the steps necessary to ensure that his actions don’t cause serious damage. Thus, it’s hardly unreasonable to suggest that Rule 1 for a senior op-ed columnist for the Washington Post ought to be: check with the CIA before you publish the name of one of its agents. Failure to demonstrate a professional appreciation of the risk involved with one’s actions and a determined and responsible effort to ensure one’s actions caused no damage is usually followed by some kind of a reprimand, suspension, retraining, or firing.
In Novak’s case, relying on the word of an official in a cowboy administration when discussing an issue that involved one of the administration’s greatest critics does not meet the professional standard. Newspapers like the Chicago Sun-Times that carry Novak’s syndicated column and the Washington Post that publishes Novak twice a week ought to have dropped him long ago.
Instead, Novak was suspended from all future appearances on CNN for using the word “bullshit” on the air and storming off the set. The inspiration for Novak’s behavior was the taunting of James Carville, who accused Novak of posturing as a tough guy to impress his right-wing sponsors. Ironically, the main topic of the interview was to be Novak’s role in the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, but Novak left the set before the subject could be raised.
What better reflects the abandonment of journalistic principles in the mainstream press than the situation where a reporter’s column can undo years of government work inside the CIA and put at risk the lives of dozens of undercover agents, but what the reporter really gets punished for is behaving like a child. One way or another, however, it is time that all the papers currently carrying Novak’s column finally get the message: Fire Robert Novak!
Today, we have one more reason for firing Novak, which falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of disgraceful journalism, which Novak’s career alone has defined for America. I call this spectrum “the Novak Scale.” It extends from the embarrassingly ridiculous to the gravely serious. If the “bullshit tantrum” rates a 1 on the Novak Scale and the outing of Agent Plame rates a 10, this latest incident rates a 5.
Novak writes in his November 18th column, “agents of Sen. Hillary Clinton are spreading the word in Democratic circles that she has scandalous information about her principle opponent for the party’s presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama, but has decided not to use it.” If this statement was offered in a court of law, the judge would rebuke the lawyer offering it for seeking to introduce evidence corrupted by three levels of what is called, “hearsay.” Hearsay is information received second-hand, not through direct experience.
In this case, Novak first asserts Hillary Clinton’s agents are doing something, but does not cite the person who told him of this activity. How do we know Clinton’s people are really doing anything? Second, Novak asserts that whoever told him about this activity told him that the Clinton campaign obtained some kind of information. Not only do we not know who told Novak about the Clinton campaign’s activities, we also don’t know who gave the Clinton campaign the information Novak is talking about. Worse, we don’t know what kind of information it is. This is the third level of hearsay. The so-called scandalous information may itself be completely corrupt. It could be a forged document. It could be empty rumor. It could be a vengeful dirty trick. It could be the confused misinformation produced through a game of “telephone” where the message is passed from one ear to another and so rendered more and more distorted and unintelligible with each person in the telephone chain. And then adding a final insult to the three levels of injury in his reporting, Novak tells us that Clinton “has decided not to use” the information anyway. Therefore, we are to process everything he just told us as though it were valid, while Novak avoids his responsibility for validate the information he reports, claiming Clinton’s decision prevents him from doing so.
Although The Washington Post and The Chicago Sun-Times are not courts of law, there is a relationship between the law of evidence employed at court and the ethics of journalism that are supposed to be employed at the Post and the Sun-Times. Both a trial and a newspaper are supposed to base their findings on verified, authenticated facts. Both a trial and a newspaper are viewed as corrupted when findings are reached based on unreliable, irresponsibly introduced information.
In this case, Novak will certainly claim that the purpose of his column is to provide the public the insider gossip of Washington D.C. He will further argue that even if the so-called scandalous information does not exist, he is justified in reporting it because it says something about Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Of course, we still don’t know if Clinton’s campaign actually is doing what Novak claims it is doing.
More importantly, if no such scandalous information exists, reporting on it may “say something” about Clinton’s campaign, but it does so at the same time it serves the purposes of that very aspect of the campaign. Therefore, whatever Novak’s reporting says about the Clinton campaign, it also says about Robert Novak’s reporting. If Clinton uses Rove-like smear tactics, so too does Robert Novak’s journalism. Worse, he has taken Clinton’s use of rumor and amplified it by a power of 100 all across the nation. No longer is the rumor circulating through Democratic circles of Washington D.C., now it is circulating through the mainstream media in every home in America.
Novak has reported on a breath of hot air and blown it into a tornado. The hot air, even if factual as hot air, was not legitimate news to begin with, but now Novak has created an illegitimate tornado of a media event and he ought to be fired for doing so.
Whenever a reporter of Novak’s profile stoops to report the fact that people are gossiping and in so doing creates a baseless rumor many times much larger than the factual behavior he pretends to be documenting, he ought to be fired. No real newspaper ought to permit such political gossip columns to soil the integrity of its reporting. Such political gossip columns corrupt our political debate and our political process. A lawyer knows this, a decent reporter knows this, and any reasonable business person knows this. You don’t trade dollars for pennies. You don’t create a mountain of rumor just to report a pattern of conduct that goes nowhere.
If Novak knew how to do his job, he would have used the information he received as a “lead” to investigate. He then would have tried to uncover the so-called scandalous information so that he could break the story. Or alternatively he would have tried to prove that the Clinton campaign was engaging in conduct similar to the smearing of John McCain by the Bush Campaign prior to the South Carolina primary in 2000.
Only after he proved which, if any, of the two scenarios was correct, would there be any meaning in the information that Clinton decided not to use the so-called scandalous information about Obama. If Novak failed to prove either scenario to be true, the only value of the information about Clinton deciding not to use the so-called scandalous information would be that it confirmed that Novak should not report any of the information he had received because none of it could be validated.
Robert Novak has long made his career as a tool of undisclosed political operatives. His shoddy reporting makes The Washington Post, The Chicago Sun-Times, and the other papers that carry his columns, serve the political purposes of dishonest and dishonorable politicians rather than the democratic interests of these papers’ readers. Instead of advancing democracy and the mission of the press through his work, Novak prostitutes his column in political intrigues that make whorehouses out of our nation’s greatest newspapers. How long will institutions such as The Washington Post and The Chicago Sun-Times degrade themselves with this sleazy character? I will say it again, Fire Robert Novak!
Hank Edson is an author, activist and attorney based in San Francisco. His Blog, “MP3—My Politics and Progressive Perspective,” can be found at: www.hankedson.squarespace.com.