The Great D.C. Plame-Out, Or: Novak, Lord of the Journo-Flies

After much heaving and grunting, special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has lifted one corner of the rock under which White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove has wriggled lo these past two years. Mr. Rove was revealed, in a Newsweek story by Michael Isikoff, to have served as one of Time reporter Matt Cooper’s sources in a piece on the outing of Valerie Plame as a C.I.A. agent. Now the press corps and the Democrats in Congress are starting to clamor for Mr. Rove’s head.

But to expect any such swift comeuppance-straight out of All the President’s Men-is to gravely misread how the state and the press do business in the new media age. Rather than lumbering into free-fire zones of public exposure, White House officials are now practiced hands in message discipline and Clinton-style semanticizing. That’s why the press corps sniping at White House press secretary Scott McClellan on Monday-putting no fewer than 35 aggressive (and unanswered) questions to the doughy apparatchik-signified very nearly nothing. Mr. McClellan is the public point man for such questions precisely because he can offer no informed opinion. Indeed, in past exchanges on Mr. Rove’s role in the Plame affair, he was reduced to lying as mind-reading-by-other-means: “I’ve known Karl for a long time, and I don’t even need to go and ask Karl, because I know the kind of person he is.”

Hounding a suit as empty as Mr. McClellan’s into submission is far from a ringing vindication of the press’ power. Indeed, like virtually everything else in the ghastly, backwards-spooling Plame saga, it exposes the press’ sallow, retiring weakness in affairs of state. Just consider the other damning revelations in the e-mail from Mr. Cooper to his editor: the routine deference that a correspondent for one of the nation’s largest-circulation weeklies shows in toeing the administration’s line as it sets about its routine course of casual character assassination-even to the point of inadvertently compromising national security by exposing the identity of a C.I.A. operative.

Eliciting comment from President Bush’s senior advisor “on double super secret background for about two mins [ sic] before he went on vacation,” Mr. Cooper sounds, in corresponding with his bureau chief, more like a teenager armed with an Encyclopedia Brown novel and a decoder ring than a reporter determined to uncover the dirt on a brewing White House scandal.

He continues, obsequiously, to plead with bureau chief Michael Duffy: “please don’t source this to Rove or even WH [White House].” We don’t know if this plea came at Mr. Rove’s urgent request, but again, the real scandal here is that any such request on Mr. Rove’s behalf was likely redundant anyway, in the clubby, exclusive protocols of what now passes for reporting on national politics in the public interest.

Mr. Cooper proceeds, indeed, to dutifully recite Mr. Rove’s callow spin job-described, in that same awestruck kid fashion, as a “big warning” that Time should take care not to “get too far out on Wilson” (i.e., Ms. Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had inadvertently touched off this whole dismal fracas by writing a New York Times Op-Ed piece contradicting the Bush administration’s assertions that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger in an attempt to develop nuclear weapons).

This is not “gotcha” journalism; it’s “may I please?” journalism. What’s more, Mr. Cooper’s conduct throughout the whole ordeal-holding out for a last-minute release from Mr. Rove that his lawyer evidently could have obtained at any time, theatrically describing the impact of his likely imprisonment on his young son-show how the D.C. press corps’ habits of mind have come to completely mimic the casual hubris of the powerful characters they cover.

Now journalists as well as Presidents pitch their case for self-exoneration on the labored, Talmudic interpretation of words and relationships whose meanings are all too self-evident.

News of the Cooper e-mail comes, of course, just after last week’s sad, ugly imprisonment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Ms. Miller’s imprisonment for civil contempt of court was less a perfect storm-to use one of the press’ hoarier clichés to characterize a grim convergence of unpleasant events-as it was a brownout, a distressing midsummer sign that a full power outage is on its way.

The whole Plame investigation demonstrates the media’s ready penchant to seize upon its own outsize personalities, and gnat-straining sourcing practices, as the motive force behind events, when the executive branch and its designated special-prosecutor-bots look fondly on, in appreciative, masterful scorn.

a jury of journalists

Even though no one has yet definitively identified the original leaker, there’s no doubt that the White House was callously acting as only the White House can: simultaneously setting up journalists as patsies and perps, dealing out Ms. Plame’s status with the agency as payback for Mr. Wilson’s criticism of the Bush case for war.

Hovering far above all this meta-journalistic intrigue, maddeningly beyond reach of any public accountability, is the figure many journalists view as the affair’s dark prince, the Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak. It was he who published the original Plame leak, reportedly gave testimony before Mr. Fitzgerald’s grand jury, and waltzed off to continue collecting fat checks from the Sun-Times and CNN, which employs him as a commentator on whatever faux-pugilistic pundit show it is on the perennial verge of canceling.

Sentiment against Mr. Novak is now so heated that N.Y.U. journalism chairman and Pressthink blogger Jay Rosen recently called for the rather poetic punishment of a profession-wide public shaming of the alleged administration toady: declining TV appearances with him, pulling the plug on his syndicated column, and generally treating him like the Lee J. Cobb character in 12 Angry Men, loudly and ineffectually seeking to foist his boorish scheme of right and wrong on an indifferent world as his jury mates one by one turn their backs on him.

Just what this case needs: more public sanctimony! While Mr. Novak is a writer much like Ms. Miller in overall credulity and distastefulness, no one knows what he told Mr. Fitzgerald’s grand jury. At least Lee J. Cobb’s colleagues had a pretty clear idea of what exactly they were shaming him for. Indeed, Mr. Rosen’s campaign turns (weirdly) on the demand that Mr. Novak cease all journalistic activity until “he explains”-a demand sufficiently self-evident that Mr. Rosen never specifies what, precisely, the slithery conservative would be owning up to.

Consider the irony, for a moment: legitimate outrage over a journalist’s imprisonment for disobeying a grand jury results in a demand for a different journalist to disobey a grand jury so that he can provide an explanation almost certain to be self-serving and unsatisfying anyway. But maybe it’s not an irony at all. Here’s how Mr. Rosen ends his j’accuse: “As the judge said Judy Miller can escape her jail cell by finally choosing to talk, so could Mr. Novak restore his column and TV appearances by finally talking about his part in the story.”

Mr. Novak is apparently to be treated by his journalistic peers, in other words, as though they are sentencing judges. It’s a surpassingly odd suggestion. It would seem far worthier for the press to train its concerted wrath on a figure such as Mr. Fitzgerald, hell-bent on criminalizing the routine work of reporters. Or if a boycott is called for, why not one aimed at pusillanimous troll Norman Pearlstine, the Time editor who rolled over for Mr. Fitzgerald against the express wishes of  Mr. Cooper. Mr. Pearlstine’s actions have already done immeasurably more damage to journalism than Mr. Novak, in his most darkly satanic fantasies of ideological control, could ever dream of doing.

Mightn’t it just be that, in cases like these, special prosecutors are the problem and not the solution? Mr. Fitzgerald has hounded Ms. Miller into jail by recklessly broadening the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which expressly states its intent to “exclude the possibility that casual discussion, political debate … [or] the journalistic pursuit of a story on intelligence will be chilled …. ” To that end, the act-drafted after former C.I.A. hand Philip Agee published a book identifying several agents in the field, intending to disrupt their operations-stipulates that it applies either to officials possessing classified information that an agent has been active in the field over the past five years, or that the leaking of such information shows a “pattern of activities” aimed at the serial exposure of sensitive intelligence operations.

Even if a Karl Rove or Scooter Libby is eventually fingered as Mr. Novak’s original source, it’s far from clear that their actions-while inarguably hateful, irresponsible and politically motivated abuses of public trust-actually would meet these standards of prosecution. So, in the grand-jury-propelled traditions of special prosecutors like Ken Starr, Mr. Fitzgerald has used his legal mandate for purposes that it was never intended to serve: to harass and imprison journalists. It’s work he clearly enjoys, to judge by the gleeful, pompous venting he does in his brief pleading that Ms. Miller’s final appeal be rejected. There, he describes his pedagogic hope that Ms. Miller “will spend months in jail … thinking about whether the interests of journalism at large and, even more broadly, the proper conduct of government, are truly served by her continued refusals to obey this Court’s order” and eagerly opines, Fox-style, that said refusals may well be “seen to undercut, not enhance, the credibility of the press.”

For what it’s worth, Mr. Novak did supply an explanation-albeit still a name-free one-of the Plame leak for the right-wing Web site Townhall.com back in October 2003, when the leak occasioned its first investigation, a “routine” Justice Department check into how this security matter surfaced in the press.

Mr. Novak recounts that he was curious how a vocal critic of the Bush White House like Mr. Wilson got assigned to verify the administration’s yellowcake claims. So he called a senior White House source-“no partisan gunslinger”-and asked. The source, Mr. Novak claims, told him that Ms. Plame had suggested her husband for the Niger trip.

Another little-remarked irony here is that the White House was, in all likelihood, not propagating this information, Corleone style, to send the message that Valerie Plame sleeps with the fishes if her husband continued to sing on the yellowcake story. It was instead eager to portray Mr. Wilson as a girly-man who had to rely on his influential wife to get him a job-so eager, in fact, that it evidently caused Bush hitmen to lose sight of pesky issues like national security.

The pettiness of the thing would also explain what, in Mr. Novak’s account, is a striking lack of ex officio coordination: “The published report that someone in the White House failed to plant this story with six reporters and finally found me as a willing pawn is simply untrue,” Mr. Novak declared.

Of course, Mr. Novak could be lying through his teeth about all this. Yet it seems at least somewhat reasonable to assume that if he were, the contradictions would have emerged in any grand-jury testimony, and that Mr. Fitzgerald would, with characteristic glee, slap some leg irons on the guy and pack him off to Alexandria. And if one assumes that some credibility attaches to this account, it doesn’t sound much like Mr. Novak’s original source could have been Karl Rove-who is a “partisan gunslinger” in the same way that most of us are bipeds.

It’s hard, at any rate, not to think that, when journalists eagerly adopt each other as surrogate demons and effigies in this fashion, the White House has gotten exactly what it was praying for when it set this whole D.C. morality play in motion: a miniature, gavel-enhanced version of the Grand Guignol conservatives have stage-managed lo these past four decades under the obligingly vague, ever-renewable dispensation of “media bias.”

Bias plaints are always, at bottom, about the symbolism of an individual journalist’s personality: the telltale left-leaning jollities of a Dan Rather or Katie Couric, the overripe entertainment-world analogies of a Maureen Dowd or a Frank Rich. They are, pretty much by definition, never about actual issues or ideas; if Dan Rather is identified as a flaming liberal, that’s meant to be a conversation stopper, not a departure point for a civilized inquiry into just what this Rather fellow may believe.

It could scarcely be otherwise, since bias battles began as complaints about how TV news played up or ignored certain pet narratives at the expense of others, and personality is what the medium is designed to convey above all else.

As a strict personality proposition, therefore, bias typically resides in small tics of self-comportment-the arched eyebrow or pointed asides of anchormen who almost never write news copy in the first place.

And no one’s eyebrow arches quite the way that Robert Novak’s does. To see him is to imagine a snake’s body attached to that condescending, upward-tilting head of his. And his tongue literally flicks at the entrance of his mouth between his televised aperçus. As he went on CNN last Friday to (mistakenly) bruit the gossip that Chief Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist was literally hours away from announcing his retirement, one half-expected him to announce: “Because I just now bit his head off in the Green Room, Wolfe … and I’m coming for you next!”

the smoking gunrack

Reconstructing the process by which Mr. Novak assimilated Valerie Plame’s name into his July 14, 2003, column is supposed to produce a great smoking gun of media bias, just as the superscript analysis of the faked Bush Texas Air National Guard documents was supposed to conduct brave citizens, at last, into the dark, gruesome, truth-distorting sanctums of the liberal mind.

Yet in each case-indeed, in virtually every case where the bias stick is loudly shaken to call down the holy wrath of excluded, heretofore-silent majorities-we are reduced to forensic debate over process for process’ sake. So Rathergate never alighted, finally, onto the political controversy that animated the thing into being: just what became of Guardsman George W. Bush over those 11 missing months in 1972-73? It was enough to demonstrate that the media was mad-mad, I tell you!-to produce something damning about the reviled conservative incumbent.

There could be no possibility that CBS segment producer Mary Mapes was simply duped by the lure of a big story in the thick of an election cycle-as apparently she had been earlier duped when a 60 Minutes II segment crew under her direction acquired and aired dubiously authentic (and anything but “liberal”) video footage of an Afghani Al Qaeda training camp from fake soldier/conman Keith Idema in 2002.

Likewise Mr. Novak’s October 2003 account of the Plame leak-that he simply asked a senior, not-all-that-partisan official for an explanation of how the Bush White House sent Joe Wilson to Nigeria, and the source proceeded to tell him-had to be ruled out from the start in the baroque bias flight from Occam’s razor.

And much more to the point, the content of Mr. Wilson’s original charges-that the Bush administration was so determined to plump the phantom threat of Nigerian yellowcake in Saddam Hussein’s vengeful hands that it deliberately disregarded his own strong empirical findings to the contrary-are now almost entirely forgotten.

Eh. That’s just the war. But look-Judy Miller’s gone to jail! And that Robert Novak sure looks sinister, doesn’t he? Karl Rove may or may not finally prove out as the original source of the Plame leak. But he’s already got to be very happy with his handiwork.