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Novak, the CIA, and the Facts

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Michael Miner's Hot Type column, "Robert Novak's Not Talking," November 26, was remarkable for its display of contempt for facts.

I don't care what Miner thinks of any of our editorials. I do care when he egregiously misrepresents the newspaper.

Let's start with his insinuation that the paper was "just going through the motions of taking Novak's side." That suggestion could have been easily corrected by the basic kind of clip search routinely expected of all but the most novice of reporters. Three previous editorials--"A necessary inquiry for a necessary column," October 1, 2003; "Report blows couple's cover story," July 13, 2004; and "Wilson's tangled web," August 11, 2004--strongly supported Novak. A minimum library check would have discovered that Howard Kurtz, in a Washington Post story about the Novak column on September 29, 2003, quoted me unequivocally backing Novak. With just a little LexisNexis research, Miner would have found that I appeared on Wolf Blitzer's CNN show September 30, 2003, voicing the strongest support for Novak.

Miner of course is entitled to his opinion about Novak and his column. He might not be concerned about a CIA employee using her position and the agency to try to influence political debate, but if he opens his mind a little perhaps he can recognize that some people might see such a scenario in this case. Perhaps he can also understand that a journalist might try to find out what's behind this story and that's how Plame's name came out. Now, Miner could rightly argue that we don't know that such a scenario is true and won't know the truth until Fitzgerald's investigation is complete. Then again, Miner's screed betrayed no let's-get-all-the-facts, don't-rush-to-judgment, evenhanded approach. He swallowed hook, line and sinker everything Joseph Wilson said. Yet just a little research would have found that the Senate intelligence committee caught Wilson in falsehoods time and again on the critical issues ("Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq," July 7, 2004, pages 39-47). Prominent among those falsehoods, Wilson lied when he denied his wife proposed him for the trip to Africa--that recommendation was a key point in Novak's column. A clip search would have found that the Washington Post ("Plame's Input Is Cited on Niger Mission; Report Disputes Wilson's Claims on Trip, Wife's Role," July 10, 2004) reported that the Senate committee's report "turns a harsh spotlight" on Wilson's statements and that he had provided the paper "misleading information" about the Niger case. Much of this information is also available in our previous editorials that Miner never bothered to look up.

Not content to rant about Novak and the paper, Miner had to drag the McKevitt case into his column and outrageously declare that the Sun-Times is to blame for that ruling. Had he gone to the trouble to fact-check his assertion, he might have read Abdon Pallasch's account of what happened, "Reporter's right to protect sources in play," October 9, 2003, Chicago Sun-Times. Pallasch wrote that his and Bob Herguth's lawyers, "both staunch First Amendment supporters, told us they thought we should hand over the tapes. Because the court would not grant a stay, they would in all likelihood rule against us, creating a precedent that could be used against other journalists in these situations. Both attorneys were willing to represent us pro bono as long as it took, but by going forward, we would likely do more harm than good." Unfortunately, Judge Posner indeed seized on the opening presented by this case to deliver the precedent Pallasch and his lawyers hoped to avoid. This is a story about two reporters writing a book and lawyers and judges going after their notes. The facts about what happened are straightforward, but Miner didn't take the time to do basic research to get the facts.

Finally, Miner's disparagement of our claiming Novak as our columnist is a particularly petty bit of invective. Yes, we're proud of his national status, just as we are proud of other nationally known Sun-Times writers such as Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper. Yes, appearing regularly on television as Novak does raises his stature above what it would be were his journalistic profile limited to the Sun-Times. But that's true too for Margaret Carlson, Kate O'Beirne, and Al Hunt. But if you watch The Capital Gang, you'll see the words Time, National Review, and Wall Street Journal appear under their images, and you'll see, yes, the words Chicago Sun-Times on-screen when Novak is on camera. Bob has had guest appearances numerous times on NBC's Meet the Press, and each time I've tuned in he's been identified with the Chicago Sun-Times. In his piece on the Plame column, Howard Kurtz (who, I suspect, has raised his profile by appearing regularly on television as, like Novak, a CNN contributor) identified the Sun-Times as "Novak's home paper." When MoveOn.org mounted its e-mail campaign against Novak over his column, it had no trouble identifying the Sun-Times as Novak's home paper. "Outside the Sun-Times newsroom, no one cares" that the paper is Novak's home, Miner sneers. CNN, NBC, Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post, and MoveOn.org seem to care. That the Sun-Times is Novak's home paper is simply a fact. But Miner has demonstrated that he has no respect for mere facts.

Steve Huntley

Editorial page editor

Chicago Sun-Times

Michael Miner replies in this week's column.

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