The many ironies of the Novak affair

December 22, 2004

If you love irony, and who doesn’t, you should be following the unfolding tale of Robert Novak. He’s the commentator whose syndicated column in 2003 blew a CIA agent’s cover. That set off a chain of events that now has two other journalists facing prison for refusing to talk to the grand jury that’s trying to find out who told Novak about the spy.

So already we have the irony that a New York Times reporter who never reported the agent’s identity and a Time reporter who reported her name only after Novak did may both be punished for resisting subpoenas that Novak apparently hasn’t even been served with yet.

But that’s just one recent irony. Let’s back up. Consider:

– Novak, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and on-air CNN pugilist, created the biggest stir of his long career with a disclosure that the logic of his strongly conservative politics would normally view as irredeemably subversive.

– The point of his July 2003 column was to discredit Joseph Wilson IV, a retired U.S. diplomat who had offered direct evidence that Iraq’s weapons development was being deliberately hyped by the administration. Yet Novak too opposes the war.

– Wilson’s sin, according to Novak, was that he got the CIA assignment in 2002 to find out whether Iraq sought West African uranium only thanks to his wife, Valerie Plame. She’s the spy whose name two administration officials leaked to Novak. Apparently, some of George W. Bush’s aides believe that benefiting from family connections is an embarrassment.

– The clamor to expose the leakers was fueled by suspicions that they were instruments of a White House scheme to silence criticism, and by hopes that unmasking them would plunge the administration into a scandal. Instead, Attorney General John Ashcroft named an aggressive independent prosecutor to investigate the leak, and the main result to date has been to put not the administration, but the news media, up against the wall.

And what are the media fighting over? Here we have a leak that likely ended a CIA agent’s covert career. It may have been illegal. It might well have imperiled those with whom she had dealt in the past. Its apparent aim was to punish a critic who, it seems, was telling the truth about a matter of grave public importance.

And to protect the identity of the leakers, reporters are ready to face jail.

Now, I support their principles – the importance of keeping promises, the indispensability of secrecy for certain kinds of coverage. What I wonder is why journalists, who routinely bewail their low public esteem and who imagine themselves public benefactors, so often find themselves standing tall for the wrong people, and hurting people who need their help.

To me, that’s the most disturbing irony in the Novak-Plame affair. It’s not unusual. In the Wen Ho Lee case, reporters are under court pressure to disclose who in the federal prosecutorial machine leaked damning allegations about a Los Alamos weapons scientist who was under investigation for security breaches. Lee wasn’t charged, and now demands to know who defamed him and cost him his job.

And there’s Stephen J. Hatfill, a bio-warfare scientist who was repeatedly implicated via leaks from the post-9/11 anthrax probe. Hatfill was never charged, and he wants to question the journalists who spread the word about the government’s suspicions so he can find out who smeared him.

An online media ethics group I take part in was abuzz recently over the question of whether a reporter who witnesses a crime – or an illegal arrest, for that matter — while on a wholly unrelated assignment should talk to police.

There is a strong argument against compelling such testimony. But shouldn’t the reporter talk anyway? Why insist on a right to thwart justice?

The common thread to all these cases is the need to preserve an independent press. Fair enough. But how is independence advanced when reporters insist they are constitutionally entitled to serve as protected instruments of state calumny against private citizens?

Independence is essential if journalists are to be free to choose their own courses of action. But that doesn’t mean all choices are equally sound. And time and again journalists seem to be acting in ways that make that independence claim another bit of irony.

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