On Sullivan and Blumenthal

Eight months ago, in its December 2004 issue, the Washington Monthly printed a lengthy profile of Bob Novak by Amy Sullivan. This morning, Salon printed a lengthy profile of Bob Novak by Sidney Blumenthal. There were some striking similarities between the two.

The Salon piece does include a link to the Washington Monthly piece, and Blumenthal attributes one quote to Sullivan’s work. The attribution and link were not included in the original piece, but were added sometime after. Contacted for comment, Blumenthal said, “they’re different pieces. Well, it’s the same subject. Mine is an original piece. It has original insights and writing, and I’ve credited [Sullivan] for her fine work.” He added, “the trajectory of [Novak’s] career is what it is.”

Sullivan also responded to a request for comment. “I have enormous respect for Sidney Blumenthal as a reporter and writer. It’s flattering that he found my profile of Novak so helpful, and I’m glad he decided to add a reference to the piece in his article,” she said. “Totally separate from this case, though, there are examples all the time of journalists borrowing from each other without attribution. And we need to have a professional norm in this business that says that’s just not cool.”

Below, excerpts from the two pieces.

Brian Montopoli


Amy Sullivan:
Swiveling in his chair, Novak went on the attack — “It looks like the ambassador [Wilson] really doesn’t know who leaked this to me”—punching back against the challenges of his guest, Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.) — “Do you know whether my source was in the White House? Do you know that at all?”— even though Novak was one of two people on earth who knew for sure the identity of the leaker. Novak also disputed the Newsday account, asserting that “nobody in the Bush administration called me to leak this.”

Two days later, Novak went further, devoting his Wednesday column to the issue and then submitting to an interview with CNN colleague Wolf Blitzer. Novak assailed criticism of the White House leak and his column, telling Blitzer, with no apparent sense of irony that, “this kind of scandal … is Washington at its worst.” That Saturday, “The Capital Gang” turned to the subject for the first few minutes of its program, but Novak’s only comment was to defend his source as someone who is “not a partisan gun-slinger.” And on Sunday, Novak spoke his last public words about the incident.

Sidney Blumenthal:
Then, on Sept. 29, 2003, the day the criminal investigation was formally announced, Novak declared on CNN, “Nobody in the Bush administration called me to leak this.” Swiveling back and forth in his chair, he engaged in a show of bravado. “It looks like the ambassador [Wilson] really doesn’t know who leaked this to me,” he said. He turned to a guest on the show, Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee, and asked, “Do you know whether my source was in the White House? Do you know that at all?”

Two days later, back on CNN, Novak decried the investigation. “This kind of scandal … is Washington at its worst,” he said. Three days after that, he appeared again on CNN to defend his source as someone who “is not a partisan gunslinger.” Then he fell into radio silence, declining to answer questions, on his counsel’s advice.


Amy Sullivan:
At this stage in his career, Novak is more than a reporter — he’s a small business. He peddles his wares with the help of a team of researchers based at “Crossfire,” “The Capital Gang,” and the warren of offices in which we’re sitting. Novak’s thrice-weekly column is syndicated to more than 300 newspapers — including the Washington Post — making him one of the top five most-read columnists in the country. His scowling visage appears on television at least half a dozen times during an average week — he’s a marquee name at CNN, where he headlines “Crossfire” and “The Capital Gang,” acts as an analyst for “Inside Politics,” and conducts interviews for “The Novak Zone,” a feature on the Saturday morning news. He also pops up on NBC’s “Meet the Press” as a frequent guest. On top of everything else, he still writes the bi-weekly political newsletter he and Rowland Evans started in 1967, the “Evans-Novak Political Report,” which has a remarkable record of accurate election predictions.

Sidney Blumenthal:
Novak had now become a cottage industry. Evans retired, but Novak’s column remained syndicated to more than 300 newspapers, including the Washington Post. The Evans and Novak show turned into “The Novak Zone.” Novak was ubiquitous on CNN. “He’s Novak — he can do what he wants,” a CNN source told me. He was also a frequent guest on the political panel of NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He continued the political newsletter he had begun with Evans, an important stream of income. He charged high fees to business executives to attend his retreats, which featured leading politicians who appeared at Novak’s beck and call. They understood the implicit exchange for positive coverage.


Amy Sullivan:
On one special occasion during the past year, Novak made an exception and broke his radio silence on the Plame case. In March, at the ultimate Washington insider event — the annual Gridiron Club dinner — Novak starred in a skit about the Plame leak. Dressed in a top hat and cut-away coat, the columnist hammed it up in front of an audience of his peers, crooning to the tune of “Once I Had a Secret Love.” Novak sang off-key about outing “a girl spy” thanks to “a secret source who lived within the great White House.” And he finished it off with a killer closing line, delivered with a wink and a grin: “Cross the right wing you may try / Bob Novak’s coming after you.” The audience howled.

Sidney Blumenthal:
Just last year, the investigation was a laughing matter for Novak. He appeared onstage at the annual dinner at the Gridiron Club, the exclusive inner circle of the Washington press corps, of which he is a long-standing member. As a gag, Novak was attired as former diplomat Wilson, wearing top hat and cutaway coat, singing to the tune of “Once I Had a Secret Love”: “Novak had a secret source who lived within the great White House … so he outed a girl spy the way princes of darkness do … Now John Ashcroft asks Bob who and how, could be headed to the old hoosegow.” He belted out his last line with panache: “Cross the right wing you may try, Bob Novak’s coming after you.” The press corps hooted and clapped. They loved that Bob.


Amy Sullivan:
He got his start as a cub reporter at the Joliet Herald-News (where he grew up) and the Champaign-Urbana Courier (where he attended college). After stints in Nebraska and Indiana, where he covered politics as a regional reporter for the AP, Novak arrived in Washington at age 26, assigned to the AP’s congressional beat. He rose quickly, breaking stories through sheer tenacity, and building what would become an unparalleled network of sources. After less than two years, the Wall Street Journal made him its Senate correspondent, and in 1961, Novak became the paper’s chief congressional correspondent. He established such a reputation for his work ethic that when Rowland Evans — then a congressional correspondent for the New York Herald-Tribune — was casting about for someone to share the load of a six-day-a-week syndicated column, it didn’t take him long to decide that Novak was his man.

Sidney Blumenthal:
Novak came to Washington from the hinterlands in 1956 as a young man to report on the Associated Press’ congressional beat. The Wall Street Journal snatched him up as its Senate reporter, drawing the eye of Rowland Evans, a writer on the New York Herald-Tribune. Evans was looking for a partner, what journalists call a “legman,” to produce a syndicated column. Novak, the wire service machine, fit the bill.


Amy Sullivan:
He soon established a relationship with a television network that would provide him even more free reign. When CNN launched in 1980, Novak’s status had swelled to the point that the network considered the columnist a must-have. Ted Turner put Novak on the air the very first weekend to bring attention to the fledgling network. He and Evans were also given their own weekly interview program, which ran until Evans’s death in 2001. In 1982, Novak became an original member of “The McLaughlin Group,” a syndicated show hosted by former Jesuit priest John McLaughlin. The show was an instant success, casting political debate as the verbal equivalent of professional wrestling. From the beginning, it was clear that Novak had the knack, reveling in the program’s vaudeville-like atmosphere. He also began co-hosting “Crossfire,” where he did one-on-one battle with a series of (usually overmatched) liberal commentators.

Novak clashed frequently with the strong-willed McLaughlin, and their feud led him to leave the show in 1985. “I just couldn’t stand being on that show anymore,” he says, “but I enjoyed that format.” So he took Al Hunt and Mark Shields out to breakfast, signed them up for an idea of his own, and went to the brass at CNN. Novak offered to provide the network with its own version of “The McLaughlin Group” — but he would be an executive producer, with ultimate control over topics, guests, panelists, and format. While his over-the-top, leak-driven style would never fit in at the New York Times or Newsweek, cable television rewarded controversy.

Sidney Blumenthal:
Novak did not truly come into his own until the advent of cable television altered the character of the Washington press corps. Once the archetype of the old-fashioned shoe-leather reporter and political inside dopester, Novak’s identity changed overnight when he appeared on CNN on its opening week in 1980. The raw no-name network saw in Novak a symbol of credibility and authority. In addition to his frequent appearances on news programs, he and Evans were given a weekly interview show. Two years later, Novak became a regular on “The McLaughlin Group,” which broke the mold of TV talk shows. It was not a calm, modulated, informative round table of polite reporters but a food fight. Novak thrived in the format, emerging as a vituperative, dismissive and mean-spirited bully, a cartoonlike character that attracted and repelled viewers. CNN promptly rewarded him with another show, “Crossfire,” which has seen a shifting number of liberal counterparts, but which always maintained him as its anchor.

Although both Novak and McLaughlin were conservatives, they had an abrasive relationship. In the final analysis, Novak was jealous that McLaughlin was the sole proprietor of the program and reaped the profits. So he pulled aside the other figures on the show — his friends Al Hunt, then bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, and Mark Shields, the columnist — and made them an offer to join a new talk show. Novak cut a deal with CNN that made him the executive producer and star of “The Capital Gang.”


Amy Sullivan:
Far from requiring Novak to explain or apologize for his actions, Novak’s corporate sponsors have gone out of their way to praise him. During a CNN news segment after the investigation was announced, Blitzer offered a “personal note” about the scandal: “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.” Blitzer’s guest — Steve Huntley, who is Novak’s editor at his home paper, the Chicago Sun-Times — was likewise effusive, calling the columnist “one of the best reporters in this country.”

Sidney Blumenthal:
But immediately after Patrick Fitzgerald was named to the post, Novak’s colleagues rallied to the defense of his reputation. Wolf Blitzer, the CNN anchor, declared: “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.” The editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, Steve Huntley, reminded everyone that Novak remains “one of the best reporters in this country.”


Amy Sullivan:
This exquisite sensitivity is shared by much of Washington. For about as long as Novak has been a first-string Washington pundit and raconteur, after all, he’s been dealing in factual mistakes, ethical slips, and personal attacks that would have done in a less well-positioned journalist. Today, he thrives thanks largely to his prominence, his independence, and the clubby support of a media elite whose standards he openly mocks. Novak has created for himself a Cayman Islands-like, ethics-free zone where the normal rules simply don’t apply.

Sidney Blumenthal:
After his 49 years in Washington, rising to become a virtual institution unto himself, was this hasty exit the end for Bob Novak? He had operated for decades according to the rules and folkways of Washington as he understood them. He had worked and badgered and bullied his way to the top of the greasy pole. Novak was not just a reporter, or even a columnist who could make or break political careers, but a media celebrity. He was accepted as a charter member of the guild of Washington correspondents. Until now his status lent him insulation from any error or offense.

Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.