If you agree with John Dewey (and Jürgen Habermas) that democracy depends on a series of institutional arrangements that enable the public to form its own values and judgments on a variety of questions–and I do–then you cannot ignore the importance of civility in allowing these institutions to function. Without a foundation in civil society, the kinds of democratic exchange that allow a public to test its prejudices and, potentially, transcend them are literally impossible.
But the mores and institutions of civility can be a double-edged sword. By insisting on “keeping things civil,” in polite society, repressive powers may suppress ugly truths about their conduct merely because raising them requires bad manners. I always thought it was a stroke of genius on the part of Robert McNamara to start crying at dinner parties in the late 1960s when someone raised the issue of Vietnam, as it pre-empted discussions of the deception and destruction for which he was responsible. Perhaps if McNamara had been confronted with some of the morally uncomfortable consequences of his policies, he might have worked harder to reverse them.
The pundit Robert Novak has never given the impression that he cared much for the values of civility. He regularly insults his political opponents and questions both their honesty and patriotism. The last time I appeared on television with Novak, he termed my politics to the “left of Khrushchev” and slandered my late journalistic mentor, I.F. Stone, as a Soviet spy. After I tried to call him on it, he refused to appear again with me and has not done so for the past twelve years.
Of course, these are relatively inconsequential matters compared with what Novak has done to former CIA agent Valerie Plame, as well as to his fellow journalists Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller. In the former case, Novak destroyed the career of a loyal public servant and potentially endangered US national security because–alone among six journalists contacted–he chose to play patsy for a Bush Administration scheme to punish her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, by revealing her identity. (Wilson had investigated, and found wanting, Administration claims that the African nation of Niger had sold uranium to Iraq; he thereby undermined its case for war.)
Novak has also exposed two professional colleagues to possible jail sentences because he refuses to reveal the source of the Bush Administration leaker who played him so perfectly. Or perhaps he has testified about the leaker–or taken the Fifth Amendment; no one can be sure. Neither Novak nor the presiding judge in the case will say. While Novak has in the past deliberately burned a confidential source because he objected to the reason he was used–the Soviet spy Robert P. Hanssen, Novak said in 2001, “was merely using me to undermine [Attorney General Janet] Reno”–he will not do so in this case. Moreover, he explains, he does not really care about the fact that while he remains free to practice his trade, Miller and Cooper are looking at slammer time, pending a Supreme Court ruling. “I don’t know why they’re upset with me,” Novak told C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb. “They ought to worry about themselves. I worry about myself.”
As Amy Sullivan recently demonstrated in a Washington Monthly profile, much of Novak’s journalistic career has taken place in a similarly insulated ethics-free zone. He regularly praises books published by the right-wing publishing house Regnery, without informing readers and viewers that his son, Alex, is in charge of the company’s publicity. Nor does he let them in on the news of his business relationship with the owner of the company, Tom Phillips, who also owns Eagle Publishing, which distributes the “Evans-Novak Political Report,” available to subscribers for an annual $297 rate.
Novak is allowed to get away with these and other ethical transgressions for two reasons. The first is that like so many conservatives, he is able to deflect criticism as alleged liberal media bias–an accusation that is belied by his very ubiquitousness in that media. But the second thing Novak has going for him is his ability to exploit the governing rules of journalistic civility despite his unwillingness to follow them himself. Both CNN and the Post have given him a pass, or worse. Wolf Blitzer felt compelled to tell viewers, “All of us who know Bob Novak know he’s one of the best reporters in the business and has been for nearly half a century.” His guest, Novak’s editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Steve Huntley, termed him “one of the best reporters in this country.” Capital Gang panelist Al Hunt told Sullivan he “conspicuously avoided the topic” on the air because Novak is “a close friend.” So has just about everyone else. (Even Hunt, however, could not help but express surprise when Novak opined on the show that CBS should be compelled to reveal its sources with regard to 60 Minutes‘ botched exposé on Bush’s draft deferment.)
On May 25, the 5th Annual Arthur N. Rupe Great Debate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, however, will feature yours truly debating Robert Novak on “The American News Media–Liberal or Conservative Bias?”
It’s the first time he’s agreed to appear with me since 1992. What would you do? What would Dewey do?
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Update: In my cover story two weeks ago, I called on media representatives to respond collectively to the Bush Administration’s assault on their right to inform the public of its actions. In fact, half a dozen Washington bureau chiefs held a meeting with White House press secretary Scott McClellan on April 29 to ask that reporters’ briefings be held on the record, rather than “on background” with an anonymous briefer. They have also asked their colleagues to make a concerted effort to convince all officials to speak on the record, for attribution. There is talk, also, of a boycott of such briefings in the future, but so far no action.