Robert Novak’s Not Talking

The Sun-Times published an editorial on November 21 championing Robert Novak, its pride and joy, but for some reason stuck it at the bottom of the editorial page. Was the paper just going through the motions of taking Novak’s side? Could be. It was a terrible editorial that deserved to be hidden.

The editorial was so brief I can quote the whole thing: “If only the media did a better job of standing up for their own. We wouldn’t have seen the general chill against journalists, which started most recently in the tempest involving our own Robert Novak, who has not been supported enough by the journalist community in his fight over confidential sources, spread as far as it has. Now Rhode Island TV reporter Jim Taricani, guilty of protecting a source who passed him proof about a politician taking a bribe, faces six months in prison, convicted of doing his job.

“This is a fight for the soul of America. If disgruntled government workers cannot pass along evidence of the incompetencies and crimes that the public sector is riddled with, if a reporter cannot accept such information without committing himself to perhaps turning the source over to prosecution down the line, then the entire system collapses, and we live in a state where the law protects, not our right to know, but the right of bureaucrats to keep us from knowing. These are frightening times, and the scariest thing is that soon we might not have the right to know just how bad it has become.”

A “fight for the soul of America”? So what was that Bush-Kerry 15-rounder that just had us all whooping and hollering? The undercard?

In the Sun-Times’s corner, “our own” Robert Novak. The Sun-Times loves to claim Novak as its own because he’s a Washington big shot and the Sun-Times is technically his “home paper.” But outside the Sun-Times newsroom no one cares. Novak’s column is distributed nationally by Creators Syndicate, and he’s seen on national TV thanks to CNN’s Crossfire and The Capital Gang. His home paper is about as vital to his career as his “contributing editor” status at the Reader’s Digest–or possibly the fact that he’s an alumnus of the University of Illinois. The Sun-Times does get to pay him a lot of money.

Anyway, “if disgruntled government workers cannot pass along evidence…the entire system collapses.” You might suppose from this distress call that gallant government workers in a high state of disgruntlement gave Novak evidence of perfidy at the highest levels, and now ruthless satraps demanding names have lashed him to the rack and are twisting, twisting.

Not exactly. The perfidy at the highest levels part of it is probably true, but Novak was helping it along. He talked to some creeps and printed what they told him. It’s the creeps he won’t identify, not some plucky whistleblowers.

As for that “general chill against journalists,” it didn’t start “most recently” with the Novak “tempest.” A lot of judges and prosecutors haven’t liked reporters for a long, long time. Even if the Sun-Times prefers to confine its meditations on history to the most recent year or two, the really chilling event in 2003 had nothing to do with Novak. It was the McKevitt v. Pallasch ruling that August by Seventh Circuit appellate judge Richard Posner, who decreed that in federal courts there’s no such thing as reporter’s privilege. McKevitt was a devastating blow to journalists’ view of their own perquisites, and the Sun-Times has itself to blame for it. Two Sun-Times reporters with a book deal were ordered to turn over some notes they’d taken of conversations with their collaborator, who happened to be the star witness against an accused IRA terrorist on trial in Dublin. When a federal judge ruled against them they asked the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals for a stay. It was denied within 90 minutes, and the reporters then cooperated. But Posner had been given an opening to weigh in on reporter’s privilege, and he took it.

But I digress. What Novak did in July of last year was write a column outing Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA agent. He said his sources were two “senior administration officials.” Since it’s not only reprehensible but illegal for government officials to betray intelligence agents, a Justice Department investigation was launched. Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, had just written an op-ed piece for the New York Times attacking one of the prime justifications for the Iraq war, and it looked for all the world as if the White House used Novak to get back at Wilson through his wife–and broke the law to do it.

A special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, who happens to be the U.S. attorney in Chicago, was appointed to find the culprits. Fitzgerald’s approach has been to subpoena every journalist who talked to the same sources, threatening them with jail if they don’t cooperate with the grand jury. No one’s been locked up yet, but the New York Times’s Judith Miller might soon be. She’s sworn she’ll let herself be jailed before she’ll betray a source–even a worthless source. After the dirt was dished to Miller, she didn’t write a single word about Valerie Plame.

Yet the Sun-Times pictures Novak as a gallant warrior alone on a burning deck and complains that other journalists aren’t “standing up for their own.” Who’s Novak standing up for? “Disgruntled government workers”? Ha! Judith Miller? Ha! He’s protecting White House pals, sucking his thumb while reporters like Miller take the heat.

At least that’s how things look. Earlier this month New York Times legal reporter Adam Liptak spoke about the Plame-Novak case at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Liptak’s a friend of Miller’s, and he thinks that on principle she’s right to keep her mouth shut, even if these particular circumstances push that principle to its limit. He thinks Novak’s the one who ought to speak up. “We don’t know what [Fitzgerald] did to Novak,” Liptak said. “We don’t know if he got a subpoena. He won’t say. We don’t know if he cooperated with the subpoena. We don’t know if he named names. We don’t know if he asserted some kind of privilege….We don’t know if he took the Fifth. We don’t know nothing. I think it’s bad that we don’t know. I think Robert Novak has an obligation to explain himself, an obligation to his readers. His bond of trust with his readers requires a level of transparency that every other reporter in this case has maintained. And I don’t understand why he has not.”

The best reason for Novak to explain nothing to anyone–the reason journalists understand–is that he alone knows exactly what happened, so he’s sitting on a terrific story he’ll tell in his own time. But whatever promise Novak made to those senior administration officials who betrayed Plame, his “home paper” isn’t beholden to it. If the Sun-Times really gives two hoots about Novak, it can match its heat with light. The biggest favor it can do him is to find out on its own who Novak’s sources were and print their names. Then maybe Fitzgerald will call off his dogs.

Or was the actual point of the Sun-Times editorial to stand up for poor Jim Taricani? He’s a reporter for TV station WJAR in Providence, Rhode Island, and he could be sentenced to six months in jail after being convicted of criminal contempt on November 18 for refusing to say who gave him a tape that showed an FBI informant passing an envelope stuffed with cash to a former mayor of Providence. Airing the tape wasn’t illegal, but whoever gave it to Taricani to air violated a judge’s gag order. Taricani was subpoenaed to find out who that was.

Taricani said in court that he had a First Amendment right to keep that secret. The judge told him he didn’t. Whatever. It’s a good bet that whoever he’s protecting deserves protection a lot more than Novak’s sources do. Taricani went on the air to show the public evidence of a crime apparently being committed; Novak went to print to end a CIA agent’s career. If records were kept of sources getting a better deal from journalists than they deserve, the deal Novak’s sources got would be up there in the same untouchable category as DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.

But suppose the next time a White House schemer says to a reporter, “I got info to die for, but you gotta protect me on it,” the reporter replies, “I’ll always listen to what you say and keep your secrets. But a word of warning. If you’re trying to hide behind me to break the law and screw an enemy the deal’s off. Then you’re the story, and I’ll sling your sorry ass into headlines from Bangor to Nome.”

Would the system collapse if reporters occasionally put their self-respect ahead of their lust for a scoop? Or would we lose the fight for the soul of America?

Whitewashing the Elephant

A couple of weeks ago I argued that the Tribune owes its readers an explanation for why it remains utterly faithful to Republican candidates for high office even though the party of Lincoln has become a party Lincoln wouldn’t recognize. This predictability is costing the Tribune a trickle of readers, and as an example I offered Ed Quattrocchi of Evanston, who wrote in to cancel his subscription when the Tribune endorsed President Bush for reelection (though Quattrocchi tells me the paper hasn’t stopped coming). Quattrocchi received a peevish response from Tribune public editor Don Wycliff, but he tells me his letter also led to a thoughtful and courteous exchange with Bruce Dold, editor of the Tribune editorial page.

Quattrocchi recalled that back in 1984 the Tribune had carried a letter he’d written on Lincoln and the modern Republican Party. Dold replied that at the time he was a Tribune reporter covering Paul Simon’s first campaign for the Senate. Simon, he told Quattrocchi, “was one of my favorite people in politics.”

The Tribune endorsed Charles Percy, the incumbent Republican, in that race.

Dold sent Quattrocchi a column he’d written about Simon in 1997, after Simon retired from the Senate. “On paper, his career makes no sense,” Dold had written. “Before politics, he was a newspaper editor who shook things up in a part of Illinois that liked things calm. He was too liberal for his congressional district, too liberal for this state, too liberal for Congress. He was a bigger-government advocate in a littler-government era. Didn’t matter. People thought he cared about them. He won his last Senate race by almost 1 million votes.” For a long time Dold wondered if Simon was too good to be true. But no more. “The people were right all along,” Dold concluded. “Paul Simon really is a very decent guy.”

Did the Tribune ever endorse Simon for the Senate? Of course not. When he ran for reelection in 1990, the editorial declaring the Tribune’s choice began, “For more than a year Rep. Lynn Martin has tried to make the case for a change in the U.S. Senate, and, frankly, she hasn’t done a very good job of it. Her message has been twisted by dubious attempts to mix Sen. Paul Simon into the S&L crisis, by suggestions that there’s something un-American about running for president, and by the ridiculous charge from her media wizard that Simon is ‘slimy.’ Nobody believes that, including Lynn Martin.”

The editorial went on to endorse Martin. “She hasn’t delivered the message. So we’ll try to deliver it for her,” it said, and did for Martin what it’s always willing to do for a Republican running for high office–make the case the candidate couldn’t make, and then be persuaded by it. (Alan Keyes wasn’t merely an exception; he was a perfect example of what an exception has to look like.)

My point is this: In an era of dwindling circulation, frayed tempers, and diminished tolerance for poppycock, doesn’t the Tribune owe an explanation to other Ed Quattrocchis who are still sticking it out as subscribers? Fretting Tribune Company stockholders might want to hear it too. When a job like president or governor or senator is on the line, why does the Tribune shift to automatic pilot and become so willing to look ridiculous?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo illustration/Mike Browarski.