Novak’s “Empty Chair Approach”

When I hear “Robert Novak” and “empty chair,” I think of that moment in 2005 when Novak cursed on-air on CNN and then abruptly exited the set, leaving just…. his empty chair (the one HuffPo is highlighting today). But, according to this 1969 Time article a co-worker emailed me, it seems there’s another reason, of which I wasn’t aware, to associate “Novak” with “empty chair:”

[T]itled The Evans-Novak Report, the program is run by a regular two-man press panel, Columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. Unlike most of the other spin-offs from Meet The Press, it does offer at least one new wrinkle: during the last 2 1/2 minutes of the half-hour interview, the guest is excused, and the two inquisitors tear apart what he has said—and not said.

The format calls for the subject to leave the set during the last commercial break. Then the camera pans past his empty chair, and the two interviewers sum up whatever news they may have coaxed from him and expose any equivocations. Robert Finch, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, was on his way out but still within earshot when Evans noted that on the subject of federal welfare standards, “we got a lot of gobbledygook.”

Novak (the saturnine-looking one) observed that Democratic National Chairman Fred Harris was “trying to carry water on both shoulders” in discussing whether the old-line politicians or the hew black groups should represent the party in Georgia….

I was hoping to find some footage of “The Empty Chair Approach” in action. No luck. If you watched The Evans-Novak Report and can comment on the”approach,” please do: How did it come off? Was it effective (as in, did it sometimes leave a viewer feeling more informed than spun)? Is there any existing show on TV today where you can see something like this working — or any host you can see doing it? Because, to me, it is sort of appealing. Both in its potential for good TV (the drama of the camera panning past The Empty Chair, only moments before occupied by Some Spinning Politician!) and its potential for making for better-informed viewers.

And for anyone arguing that Meet the Press host-types should just say it to their guests’ faces: yes, but I refer you back to that 1969 Time piece:

The empty-chair approach offers an obvious advantage to the interviewers, who can demolish a guest for inconsistencies, evasions or even outright untruths without having to do it to his face. If it seems rather unfair, the fact is that TV’s panel interviewers only occasionally offer that sort of candid criticism while the guest is still around to fight back.

…which is about as true in 2009 as it was, apparently, in 1969.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.