August 5, 2005
Why Robert Novak Stormed Off the Set
Old Novak rules: sorry fellas, can't talk. New rules: Novak chooses. This, I believe, is the cause of what happened on air. The legitimacy of Novak's exemption from questioning had collapsed earlier in the week. Ed Henry was ready with that news. Novak was not ready to receive it.
Thursday afternoon Robert Novak stormed off the set of CNN’s “Inside Politics” and got himself suspended. He also eluded questions about the Valerie Plame case that were going to be asked by a CNN colleague, anchor Ed Henry, who said he warned Novak before the show began that he would be raising the matter. (The Transcript. The video.)
For months, Novak has been under pressure to answer questions from fellow journalists. On July 7 (see Time for Robert Novak to Feel Some Chill) I wrote at PressThink: “If you’re Jonathan Klein, president of CNN/US, you take him off the air until he decides to go on the air and explain.” Novak’s friends should tell him to take some time off, I said.
It just seemed to me, as a viewer, that Novak was in an impossible position every time he went on the air to talk politics. If he met his duty to himself (by not speaking up while the Plame case was open) then he could not meet his duty to his peers and his profession.
This was to tell CNN viewers just what he knows about a newsworthy story, and answer a fair-minded interviewer’s questions. Putting the man on the air in a situation so constrained was neither fair nor wise. It didn’t make journalistic sense, or human sense. (And where was his agent — rooting him on to disaster?)
“Just what this case needs: more public sanctimony!…” wrote Chris Lehmann in the New York Observer about my recommendation that Novak chill for a while on the sidelines. Now the network has been embarrassed by a live crack up of its own on-air talent, and Novak (who did apologize) is suspended.
Why did it go down Thursday? Because on Monday, Aug. 1, Novak violated the terms of a professional stand-off that had been keeping him just this side of legitimate in the eyes of his colleagues in Washington journalism. He had previously said that, on the advice of his lawyer, he couldn’t talk about the case, or answer any questions interviewers might put to him, until the prosecution had run its course.
But then he went ahead and talked about the case in Monday’s Chicago Sun-Times column (“Ex-CIA official’s remark is wrong”) in which he disputed the account given by Bill Harlow, the official spokesman at the CIA whom Novak called for more information about Valerie Plame.
That was the fail safe conversation. That is where the system broke down. If Novak was going to be successfully warned off the naming of Plame, it was by Harlow as spokesman for the Agency, responding to the questions of a reporter with a story. Harlow told the Washington Post last week that he warned Novak in the strongest possible terms not to name Valerie Plame. He said he told Novak that his story was wrong, and would harm U.S. interests. Harlow said he told the federal grand jury the same thing.
Novak, in order to counter the suggestion that he had been properly warned but went ahead anyway — which he said would be “inexcusable for any journalist and particularly a veteran of 48 years in Washington” — decided to take up his pen. Ladies and gentlemen, he said, people have got to know whether their columnist is a crook. Or a jerk. Or a tool. Did I go ahead with the name of a CIA covert operative despite being warned? No, I did not.
Old Novak rules: sorry fellas, can’t talk. New rules: Novak chooses when. When to take the Fifth on advice of counsel, when to ignore counsel and respond to the news with his own explanations of what happened to reveal Plame’s name.
This, I believe, is the real cause of Thursday’s break down of professional discipline on air. The legitimacy of Novak’s exemption from questioning had collapsed earlier in the week. Ed Henry knew it and was ready with that news. Novak was not ready to receive it. So he invented an out.
Brian Montopoli at CJR Daily was properly acidic: “A man who has spent years getting paid to spout his side’s rhetoric on television storms off the set when someone implies he’s pandering to his ideological base?”
It is beyond imagination that Ed Henry and his producers would notify Novak of their intentions without huddling with the CNN brass first. Thus there’s a corporate ballet embedded in the show itself, even before it became comic opera with the cry of “bullshit!” and the big walkout. Novak was about to be faced with a gigantic contradiction in his public stance, and the Network wanted it.
“The allegation against me is so patently incorrect and so abuses my integrity as a journalist that I feel constrained to reply,” he wrote Monday. But earlier he said he was constrained not to reply to such questions.
Among professional peers, almost all remaining sympathy for Novak was, I think, based on the good sense in doing just that. “He’s got a lot of explaining to do,” went the reasoning, “But you can’t blame him for following his attorney’s advice.” Many others, of course, were not sympathetic to him at all.
On “Inside Politics,” June 29, Ed Henry began to press Novak about why some reporters were preparing to go to jail to protect their sources. Novak (who had similar sources) wasn’t preparing to go anywhere. “Ed, I — my lawyer said I cannot answer any specific questions about this case until it is resolved, which I hope is very soon.”
Henry did not give up. Take a look at what happened:
HENRY: Do you understand why in general there’s frustration among fellow journalists after 41 years of distinguished work, where you’ve always pushed and been a fierce advocate of the public’s right to know, you’re not letting the public know about such a critical case, and two people may go to jail.
NOVAK: Well, they are not going to jail because of me. Whether I answer your questions or not, it has nothing to do with that. That’s very ridiculous to think that I am the cause of their going to jail. I don’t think they should be going to jail.
HENRY: Yes. But I didn’t say you were the cause. But there are some people—
NOVAK: Yes, you do did.
HENRY: No, but some people feel if you would come forward with the information that you have, that maybe they would not go to jail.
NOVAK: But you don’t know — Ed, you don’t know anything about the case. And those people who say that don’t know anything about the case. And unfortunately, as somebody who likes to write, I’d like to say a lot about the case, but because of my attorney’s advice I can’t. But I will. And there might be some surprising things.
HENRY: We’ll all be waiting to hear that story finally told, Bob.
When Novak said “Ed, you don’t know anything about the case…” he was disparaging CNN journalism — and a professional peer — on the air, something you do not normally see. (Why CNN permitted it is beyond me.) If he simply wanted to make reference to all that is publicly unknown about the case he could have said, “There’s a lot that hasn’t come out…”
It was a different message: Ed, you’re pulling questions out of your ass because you don’t know a damn thing. So do us all a favor and shut up. In fact, the biggest barrier to Henry knowing more was, of course, Novak himself: “I cannot answer any specific questions about this case until it is resolved.”
Unless they involve my honor! Whether Robert Novak recklessly revealed a covert operative’s name after proper warning from CIA spokesman Bill Harlow is a very specific question. In his wisdom of 74 years he decided to answer it Monday, admitting that his lawyers “urged me not to write this.”
That broke the stand off. Novak knew that dodging his colleague Ed Henry was no longer going to work. He solved a problem for himself, and for CNN with his theatre of phony rage.
After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…
A preview of Thursday’s walkout? Scott Heiser, a reporter/intern for the Financial Times, e-mails. He was there for the FT Wednesday when Novak spoke to the Young America’s Foundation National Conservative Student Conference. This was after the Aug. 1 column and before the Aug. 4 meltdown on air.
Heiser said he was “told in no uncertain terms beforehand that should I have the gall to ask Mr. Novak about his involvement regarding the CIA leak investigation, he would say no comment and walk away.” The Financial Times reported in its print editions (not online): “He has suggested he would end even live radio or TV interviews if any questions came up about the CIA leak case.” Heiser said the exchange went like this:
Q: Alright, let’s just get to the meat here - you’ve been maintaining silence throughout the grand jury investigation, but you just published a column on Monday —
A: My third column total on it
Q: Well, right, but…
A: I’m not going to answer any of it. Not at all.
Q: But don’t you have an obligation to explain your role?
A: I’m not a public figure.
Q. Except isn’t that self-serving?
A. You can say what you want…”
Q. Wait, you need to -
A. I think this interview is over!
And then Novak stormed off, Heiser said. Next day he walked off on the set of “Inside Politics” and ended the Ed Henry interview before it began. (Thanks, Scott.)
To me the most disturbing part is his claim that he’s “not a public figure.” I’m curious - do many other people who have been on television every day for the past couple of decades consider themselves to not be public figures? I’ve written before about the disturbing view put forth by news celebrities that they deserve all the benefits of celebrity without any of the downsides, but I’m actually quite shocked to have one of them say it so plainly.
I agree: bizarre. Certainly by the standards of Times vs. Sullivan he’s a public figure. What he meant, I think, is: I am not a public official. They have to answer your questions, I don’t. (Of course that isn’t true, either.) But he forgot that he’s a crucial figure in a news story— a source.
After Novak walked off, Henry told viewers: “I had told him in advance that we would ask him about the CIA leak investigation…Hopefully we’ll be able to ask him about that in the future.” (See TV Newser.)
Josh Marshall interviewed James Carville about Novak’s meltdown. Carville said the exchange was “nothing more than what it seemed like on the surface,” Marshall writes.
And he had no idea why it would have set Novak off. It didn’t seem like a big deal to him either. “At the time I thought it was like a 2.5 [on the scale on pundit show smackdowns]. But when I heard it again later, I thought, no, it’s more like a 1.5.”
Carville also told me that he didn’t get any sense during the interview or in anything that happened off the air that “something was building” or any other sense that the guy was about to snap. It was as out of the blue to him as it was to everyone watching.
CNN issued a statement Thursday (Aug. 4): “Bob Novak’s behavior on CNN today was inexcusable and unacceptable. Mr. Novak has apologized to CNN, and CNN apologizes to its viewers for his language and actions.”
Broadcasting & Cable magazine got CNN/US President Jonathan Klein to comment. Did he plan to meet with Novak? “I don’t know how much more discussion is necessary for the network to decide what to do about it. I think our actions speak for themselves for now and we’ll just see how it plays out.”
Joe Gandelman at The Modederate Voice: “Is walking off the set a big deal? It’s only the most unprofessional thing a newsperson or actor can do.”
Tom Karr at Media Citizen has an excellent round-up, including why Novak is becoming increasingly unpopular among Republicans too.
Garrett M. Graff at Fishbowl DC:
After stalking off the set, Novak confronted anchor Ed Henry and D.C. bureau chief David Bohrman off-air, furious that Henry’s post-walk-off statement that he intended to ask about the Plame investigation might lead viewers to believe Novak was upset over that.
Of course that might very well be the case. According to people familiar with the events, Henry had warned Novak in advance that he would ask about Plame and related materials were on the table in front of Henry on-set—leading some to wonder whether Novak had been eyeing them through his segment and getting more agitated as he realized what was in store.
Ex TV news director Terry Heaton was watching “Inside Politics” that day and thinks the Plame case had nothing to do with it. He says why in comments.
Robert Novak gives the AP an interview the day after:
CNN correspondent Ed Henry said afterward that he had been about to ask Novak about his role in the investigation of the leak of Valerie Plame’s identity, which Novak has repeatedly refused to comment on aside from some references in his column.
“That had nothing to do with it, absolutely nothing,” Novak said. “I was sorry he said that.”
Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times traces the 20-year relationship between Robert Novak and Karl Rove:
The story of that relationship, a bond of mutual self-interest of a kind that is long familiar in Washington, [gives] a clue to Mr. Rove’s frequent and complimentary mentions over the years in Mr. Novak’s column, and to the importance of Mr. Rove and Mr. Novak to each other’s ambitions.
“Novak has been under pressure to answer questions from fellow journalists,” I wrote. On this point see Sydney Schanberg in the Village Voice (Aug. 2 edition):
Robert Novak should come out from behind his false curtain and tell us everything. Judith Miller must also tell her story in full. Tim Russert cuts a large figure in Washington. He should be a big man now and give us some details; why not agree to be interviewed by someone as probing as he?
Again, they don’t have to name their sources. Just be reporters. The public has a right to know; isn’t that our mantra?
He also says that he believes journalism to be a profession (not just a craft) “but that belief has standing only when we regulate and explain ourselves.”
Posted by Jay Rosen at August 5, 2005 5:38 PM
I question whether those defending Novak here in light of an opinion that Carville "rudely interrupted" him and "wasn't acting professionally" have ever before watched the two go head-to-head on any CNN program.
Answer: I've never watched them. But I am aware of the rather childish rhetorical back-and-forth on these kind of shows.
The exchange that led to Novak's meltdown was, in fact, NOTHING compared to their regular back-and-forth. I agree with Carville that it rated about a "1.5" as their usual debate goes.
I'm sure you're right about the exchange.
But I think of it as "defining unprofessionalism down". Novak and Carville may interrupt and tease/insult each other on a regular basis, and that may be the show's standard operating procedure, but it's still wrong.
Any TV news personality walking off the set is generally indefensible, with very few exceptions -- one being the fear of bodily harm. Add in the fact that Novak has had a huge hand in the very invention of such hard-hitting news-channel debate programs, and there's absolutely no reasonable defense of his actions.
Here's a reasonable defense: He was stressed out, and scared about the grilling he was going to get from Ed Henry. It's not an excuse, so I'm glad Novak apologized, but it's certainly a reasonable defense.
Either Novak couldn't take the heat in a kitchen he built, or he needed an out in light of forthcoming questions on the Plame affair -- questions that he could no longer sidestep on legal grounds after his Tribune article. Either way, his career may never fully recover, and rightfully so.
I agree with you that Novak cannot go back to business as usual, to "schoolyard punditry". But if he can stick to debating in a dignified, ethical, and respectful manner, then there's no reason he can't become a better commentator than he was before.
Novak's meltdown is only superficially a disaster -- it's actually a big opportunity, provided Novak is up for it.
The cracks in the Republican propaganda machine are showing. So many lies. So much spin. So much rot.
But there is one indisputable FACT:
For the first time in the history of this country, an ultra-partisan administration willfully decided to expose the top-secret identity of a covert CIA operative in furtherance of their ultra-partisan agenda.
National security? Forget it. Corporate profits and unchecked political power have trumped national security in this ultra-partisan administration.
And Robert Novak is just part of this Republican propaganda machine.
Just like the Bush administration blowing off intelligence agency analyses contradictory of their partisan war agenda, Robert Novak blew off a warning from a CIA spokesman, Mr. Harlow, who twice indicated that using Valerie Plame's name in his syndicated column would be damaging to our national security.
So, the chain of culpability in this major national security breach is very long, and twisted, and rotten.
And Robert Novak is part of this chain. As is, apparently, Judith Miller. As are the editors at the NY Times and the editors at Novak's news syndicate. As are the Bush administration officials responsible for using a covert CIA agent as a football in their partisan game.
These unscruplous partisan people punted, but in the end, I hope and pray that Patrick Fitzgerald kicks them all in the ass.
Our national security demands that all those behind this major national security breach are held accountable.
This is why I believe Mr. Fitzgerald's investigation has expanded. The root-rot in the Bush administration as evidenced in this unconscionable national security breach is much more extensive than initially suspected. Three federal judges agree.
I hope and pray Mr. Fitzgerald continues in his quest for justice and succeeds in uncovering and prosecuting everyone with a hand in this treasonous act. Our national security depends on it. Godspeed, Mr. Fitzgerald.
You're right, Daniel: "Bullshit" is a necessary term in the American language, and the ability to detect it a component of one's sanity. Therefore the network that bans the word from everyday use is doing something that's a little bit insane, or at least un-real. I believe it's often these tiny subtractions from life, the refusal at critical moments to be real, that makes TV news so unbelievable today.
Putting good looking people on the air is one thing. No one really minds. But when you put implausibly good looking people on the air, people who in visual terms are no different from the cast of Baywatch, and they read the news, or argue about it as pundits, you lose credibility even if every story they read to us is true, and every opinion brave.
I believe some people in this thread have said that James Carville is un-real to them in a similar way. I would call this level of things "visceral." It's trust for the five senses. It's what lies beyond disingenuous. It's not about whether you have the story right, but whether your existence seems false to a high number of viewers. To me, Carville's is false. He was a net loss for CNN journalism when he came on board.
Impossibly good looking is not Robert Novak's problem, of course. Sometimes I think CNN has kept him on the air for so long not because he's a conservative voice, or a reliable pro, but because someone at the Network who thought himself very clever said: the audience wants a villain, he stays. And as reasoning it stuck. (ABC Sports succeeded with such a strategy with Howard Cosell.) If you think of Novak not as an analyst or an operative but an actor, as in stage actor, you can start to see the point.
One must remember a network news executive is generally a middle aged white guy (although Klein's predecessor was a hip youngish black guy) who in his self image is trying to succeed in news. But he fears the way to succeed is actually with entertainment. This is CNN to a T.
Mister News wants to inform us, responsibly. He really does. And he feels that deep down, as creatures of desire, we maybe are not responsible enough. And thus we cannot be informed, most of the time. (We can in a crisis.) But Mister doesn't give up. Instead of taking a wholly cynical view he reverts to middle ground contempt. He and his colleagues feel they have to--and this is the key phrase, I think--"get us into the tent." And if he does not share this belief, he knows the company is likely to find someone who does.
But if we cannot be informed (won't "choose" serious news enough) then he has to practice entertainment (think Nancy Grace) which is the opposite of the ethic Mister News thought he was going to live by. It's not his broadcast but his whole professional life that makes no sense, then.
Perhaps to some of these people Novak's rawness, his anger, his undisguised contempt, and especially his willingness to be a real shit on the air were perfect for the part. They thought themselves clever for keeping him on. It was actually their contempt for us that did it.
You know, I went to cover Carville and his wife back in the 1990s when they came to town to "speak" to an insurance industry group. It was a weekend and I was interested, so I took the assignment myself, didn't make a big deal about being a reporter, and just sat in the back.
Anyway, Carville and Matlin get up and do their schtick: About 15 minutes of the Sonny and Cher show, followed by press bashing. Then more press bashing. Tag team. Left and right. We're cowards. Idiots. Fools. We're tricky and unethical and we don't care about the truth. On and on. And when James Carville gets after you, it's like being flayed alive by an ornery reptile. Those insurance executives were lapping it up, too, cheering and applauding. Yeah. Hell yeah. Everything would be great if it weren't for those damned reporters.
When it was over, I didn't go back and talk to them. I left, wrote the thing up straight as I could, including mild descriptions of their "press criticism," tried not to let my disgust show through, told the night desk to bury it inside and went home.
Because here it is: I know a thing or two about the careers of Carville and Matlin. I admire their skill and intelligence. But I left that theater with a very clear understanding: Those two are no better than paid assassins, and they'll do whatever it takes and count it as the cost of doing business.
When CNN hired Carville I remembering thinking that we were lost in the woods. Carville hates the press, hates journalists, but he's happy to play one on TV, happy to bankroll his celebrity, happy to strut and preen in what amounts to semi-scripted professional wrestling. Politainment.
Just in case anybody thought I only disliked Novak...
I have been using "infotainment" for decades.
Now I need to add "Politainment" to the vocabulary. It's the perfect description of most political junk -- the horse race, the blow by blow, the World poli-Wrestling Federation (it's a Real Sport! uh, yeah, right).
But, in Slovakia, I never watch Cross-fire.
Jay's comment: "There has been a noticeable uptick lately in the "they do it, so we have to do it" mentality, in faith-based reasoning among so-called liberals"
Sorry Jay, press attack dogs started with Nixon. Eased off on Carter, full rabid attack on Reagan. Didn't seem so tough on Bush I (wimp-read my lips...oh, never mind), and it wasn't the press hounding Clinton so much as the Reps.
Notice how much bigger the Hiroshima 60 years memories are than either the 30 years ago Killing Fields, or the 11 years ago Rwanda genocides. Since "Peace Now" meant genocide soon after; and the Rwanda "no genocide" policy had the benefit of meaning no US war casualties.
The Iraq war is opening more eyes to the alternative of fighting evil; and the blogs are letting folk, psychotic or otherwise, leave comments. Prior Leftist closed-mindedness is being challenged more repeatedly, and more Reps are turning up the volume and talking back.
Since the Left has long been shouting against the Right at Loudest Comfortable Volume -- it's becoming uncomfortable to all when the Left tries to TURN UP THE VOLUME. [Just saw Radio Raheem get brutally murdered by police in "Do the Right Thing" -- he was not innocent, but didn't deserve death.]
Though I'm enraged by an unfair, unjust Leftist press bias in the NYT, it's clear a lot of my news comes from them (and BBC and Reuters; Leftists all, and the WSJ, not Leftist). I have this thought that lots of folks think Leftist press bias hurts Pres. Bush -- and so support Bush to punish the arrogant Leftist press. In other words, that 5 points against Bush by press bias might actually be more points for Bush as a reaction against unfair bias.
If this was true, a more balanced press would hurt Bush because they would make fewer silly criticisms (Bush lied) and then the real ones (Bush is feeding porkfuls of tax-cash to rich corps) would be heard by the middle.
[I know when my own kids are shouting, I can't really hear what they're complaining about until they repeat it more quietly.]
Why is this a story? Because Bush claimed in his SOTU that Saddam was seeking uranium from Africa.
(Bush didn't specify Niger).
Joe Wilson went to Niger to find out; wrote an op-ed in NYT that 1) lied about who recommended him to go (he said Cheney, but it was his CIA wife),
2) lied about his results, saying no Saddam interest (in the op-ed) while his report to the CIA did indicate some interest, although not a purchase.
Why did the NYT print these op-ed lies by Joe Wilson? How did we find out they were lies -- the Senate Intel committee report. But before that, as part of the Bush defense against Leftist lies, Rove, among others, confirmed it was Wilson's wife who recommended him, not Cheney.
It's not clear how much Rove knew about Valerie Plame/ Wilson, or her status; and therefore whether it was legal to mention her. (Rove prolly guilty here of not knowing a status; prolly not guilty of outing a secret operative).
The Leftists act like a witch-hunt about Rove/ Novak, but the real hunting should be on Wilson. Jay's comment "they do it, so we have to".
Bush told the truth in the SOTU. Leftists lied about Bush; lied about the reality. Bush supporters try to defend the truth. Possibly some did some wrong things. (It's still not clear to me if outing Plame was an actual crime.)
Leftist story: what Bush supporters did that was wrong. Non-stories: a) Bush telling the truth about Iraq and uranium. b) Bush-hating Wilson lying in the NYT. c) Reasons the NYT supports Bush-hate lies.
Looks like press bias in the non-stories to me. But we won't know until the investigation is over, and more is public.
Compare with Oil-for-Food: Kofi's friend Bevon is indicted, and it's long been known to be corrupt. Where is the Leftist outrage? Almost nowhere, because everybody knows the world needs a cop, and if the US isn't good enough, the main alternative is the UN -- and they're far, far, worse than the Bushies. But if the MSM doesn't talk about it, does it really matter? (If a genocide occurs in Rwanda but the US says it's not, is it? Or in Sudan with the UN saying it's not?)