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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.)

Atrios comments:

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