The Irony of Robert Novak

Amy Sullivan has this delightful little passage in an article about Robert Novak, the reporter/commentator who passed on information from "senior administration officials" about the identity of Valerie Plame, ending her CIA career, damaging years of undercover work on WMD programs and putting the lives of Plame, her family, and her foreign sources at risk:

Robert Novak was in high dudgeon. He and his colleagues on CNN's "The Capital Gang" were squabbling over whether CBS should have run a story on President George W. Bush's National Guard service, a story which relied on documents whose authenticity had come into question. Novak--the show's resident curmudgeon, outfitted with a three-piece suit and permanently arched eyebrow--delivered his verdict. "I'd like CBS, at this point, to say where they got those documents from," he growled. "I think they should say where they got these documents because I thought it was a very poor job of reporting by CBS."

Resident liberal Al Hunt jumped in to clarify. "Robert Novak," he asked, "you're saying CBS should reveal its source?" When Novak replied that he was, Hunt pressed him further. "You think reporters ought to reveal sources?" In a flash, Novak realized he had made a mistake; he began to backtrack. "No, no, wait a minute," he said. "I'm just saying in that case." So in some cases, Hunt continued, reporters should reveal their sources--but not in all cases? "That's right," said Novak.

You can't write irony any better than that. Novak, the pompous blowhard, suggesting that someone should reveal their sources when he has thus far refused to reveal his source on the Plame affair. Blue Mass Group has an interesting take on it, suggesting that perhaps Novak did reveal his source to the grand jury, but lied about it, which would explain why the prosecutor is putting so much heat on the other reporters who were given the leak, so they could get the real source and then prosecute Novak for perjury. No idea if that's true or not, but it's interesting.

They also point out that this is not the typical situation where a journalist is protecting a source inside the government who has blown the whistle on some government screwup or deceit. The reason for journalists protecting their sources has always been that we rely upon the press to be a watchdog on the government and forcing them to reveal their sources would make whistleblowers less likely to come forward and thus damage their ability to be such a watchdog. But that is not at all the case here. There was no public benefit to having Plame's identity revealed (indeed, there was much potential damage) and Novak was merely assisting his political allies in the White House in destroying a political opponent (Plame is the wife of Joseph Wilson, who had just blown the whistle on the White House for dishonestly handling the Iraq/Niger evidence). So if anything, this case cuts the other way. By not revealing his source, it makes whistleblowers less likely to come forward because the government can simply use leaks to reporters, who will then refuse to name their sources, to damage the whistleblowers through the media in some way.

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You misunderstand the issue regarding Novak and the Plame affair. THe issue is not whether Novak should be required to name a source. The issue is whether he, as probable witness to a crime, should be required to provide evidence regarding the crime. Just because he is a so-called "journalist" doesn't mean that he should be exempt from being a witness regarding a possible crime that he has personally been witness to.