This has not been a good year for veteran journalists. The obituary sections have been in overdrive mourning the death of Walter Cronkite, and just this week Don Hewitt and Robert Novak.
In today’s Center Square radio essay WHYY’s Chris Satullo reflects on how each has left a distinct imprint on television journalism.
Listen: [audio: satullo20090823.mp3]
Robert Novak, journalism’s Prince of Darkness, died last week. His career blazed a path from the old days of newshounds in fedoras to the current mode of screamers in studios.
As a fellow journalist, I hope that, post-mortem, Novak headed upward, not the other way.
But I enjoy imagining this scene at the Pearly Gates: St. Peter looks up from his ledger, his brow arching as he takes in Novak’s three-piece suit: “Ah, yes, Mr. Novak. We’ve been expecting you. But a word to the wise: You should NOT have outed that agent. The Boss was not pleased.”
Novak was the columnist who, in 2003, published the name of a CIA agent, Valerie Plame Wilson, in a bid to discredit her husband’s critique of the Iraq war. His retailing of this anonymous leak from Bush administration officials led to the perjury conviction of a vice presidential aide.
But liberal bloggers tend to dismiss Novak too easily as just another right-wing hack. Like 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt, another legendary journalist who died last week, Novak both lived through and helped lead watershed changes in the craft. Each man is ill-served by their imitators, who mimic their shtick but lack their substance.
Unlike most of the blowhards who now litter cable TV, Novak started out as a real reporter, a darn fine one. He worked hard to develop the obscure sources deep inside government who have always been journalism’s Sherpa guides, leading the way to the real story. Novak was a conservative, sure, but for not a mindlessly partisan one. Go back and read the tough, scoop-filled reporting he did on Watergate.
But something happened to Novak after he became a TV star, rewarded for his blistering rhetoric on shows such as Crossfire. These shows can turn real journalists into lavishly paid parodies of themselves.
The Plame mess was a sorry coda to Novak’s career. It summed up what disgusts critics of the Washington press corps: the servile coziness with power, the coy misleading of the public to protect well-placed sources.
Novak behaved badly there. But don’t reduce his legacy to that moment. The guy at one time was one hell of a reporter. And that is still a fine thing to be.
I’m Chris Satullo.