In Praise of Robert Novak « The Washington Independent
“The Prince of Darkness,” Robert Novak’s memory of his reporting career — published only two years ago — is one of the best books written about political journalism. It’s not because it’s brutally honest. Lots of reporters and politicos, in their waning years, discover their consciences and reveal the uncomfortable truths about how they made it and the character of the people they met along the way. But Novak had been brutally honest throughout his career. If a politician didn’t impress him, he’d say so.
After interacting with a young Indiana Democrat named Birch Bayh, Novak judged that Bayh “was superficial and ineffective, a good-looking glad-handler who might not even be returned to the leadership in the next session.” Reporting on Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, Novak found Carter fibbing about his record and reacting angrily that he was called on it. “Old enemies in Georgia use the words ‘lie’ and ‘liar’ with disturbing frequency to describe him,” Novak reported, as Carter narrowly won the presidency with the promise: “I’ll never lie to you.”
Novak needed to know what was going on, and he hated spin. In the era of blogs and TV, there’s a lot of journalism devoted to getting the first look at a press release, the first look at a poll. There are endless stories about which party is winning a “message war,” and “beat-sweeteners” meant to pump up the public profile of influential people to pry information from them later. Novak didn’t do any of that. “I’m not one of the real good guys,” Novak told Amy Sullivan in 2004 in a highly critical profile. “They try to make things nicer. That’s not my deal.”
He got his stories, instead, by being known as someone who would publish scoops. That sometimes led to mistakes and embarrassments. “I was such a sucker for an exclusive story that I sometimes committed errors indefensible even for a cub reporter,” Novak wrote in his memoir about one blown story about the Nixon White House. If he was spun, he was unforgiving to the spinner. The Nixon White House wanted him to report on whether George McGovern and Ted Kennedy played a role in ramping up anti-war demonstrations; Novak called it a “harebrained scheme.” He was spun by the Bush White House on the Valerie Plame story, and I imagine that will play an outsized role in his obituaries today. But if more people had reported like Novak in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, we’d have been better off.
I only met Novak a few times. Once, in 2007, I asked him about the meaning of the upcoming Yearly Kos conference; Novak went on a happy rant about the low standards of blogs. (His answer is remembered here.) He was wrong in diagnosing blogs as a source of rot in journalism; the real problems with political reporting are reliance on spoon-feeding and spin, deference to powerful people even when they’re wrong or lying, and the elevation of experts who don’t know anything beyond what their sponsors tell them. At his worst, on cable news, Novak enabled that. At his best, Novak cut through all of that and did real reporting that exposed what powerful people were thinking when the cameras were off. We need more of that.