Tuesday, August 5, 2008

News commentary changes with time

There are people who will read the names “Robert Novak” and “Ann Coulter” and try to lump them into the same category – a couple of conservative blowhards who use the written word in the form of newspaper columns to give their broadcast personas a touch of credibility.

Yet I can’t imagine two different types of people professionally, and their recent activities bring about two totally opposite responses from me.

NOW IN THE interest of disclosure, I have briefly encountered Novak a couple of times during my two decades working in the news business. I have never had the “pleasure” of meeting Coulter, which is good because I don’t think I’d be able to control my revulsion at being in her presence.

While the public may perceive the two of them as conservative pundits (for good or bad), I see two totally different individuals.

Coulter is the attorney who uses the written word to advance her conservative views on social issues, while Novak is the hard-working street reporter (seriously, he was still plugging away at age 77 until learning just last week that he had a brain tumor) who tries to dig up nuggets of information about political conservatives that could be news.

Seriously, the mental image I have of the times I met him is of a veteran reporter who was doing the same legwork I was to try to dig up some factual tidbit that would give me (and my potential readers) a better understanding of what was truly happening.

NOW, I’M NOT going to claim Novak is “objective” in his work. But that’s not what he was being paid for. One of the perks of being a newspaper columnist or commentator is that you can use your experience and knowledge accumulated during your time as a reporter to try to give a more honest account of what is really happening.

No longer are you truly required to quote someone just because they take the opposite viewpoint of the people whom you are writing about. If you do, you can honestly point out their errors.

Now I often thought the causes of the people who were promoted in Novak’s writing were flawed. But I have to praise Novak for writing columns that gave me an understanding of what the people on “the right” were thinking.

Considering that they rose to prominence in the 1990s and gave fits to the presidency of Bill Clinton before taking control of the federal government with the election of George W. Bush, it would have been wrong to pretend they did not exist.

NOVAK’S CRITICS ARE going to lambaste me for “burying the lede,” so to speak. They’re going to claim that any commentary trying to put Novak’s career into proper perspective ought to have in the first paragraph the fact that he wrote columns that identified Valerie Plame as a CIA operative.

While I thought Novak’s conduct in getting that story was a little sleazy, I learned a long time ago that writing stories about nasty subjects is going to result in encountering nasty people and having to meet them on their turf. It’s not a clean world.

In the case of the Plame story, what we learned is that the Bush allies who outed Plame’s presence did so out of a sense of retribution against her husband, who was perceived as a Bush critic. It was truly informative to learn the degree to which Bush people would play political hardball to advance their ideological causes.

Insofar as the retirement of Novak, I couldn’t help but wonder how many people are going to be shocked to learn the Joliet, Ill. native is a Chicago newspaper guy – having been on the Chicago Sun-Times payroll since 1966 ever since the old New York Herald-Tribune went defunct.

IT WAS THE Sun-Times that announced his retirement (due to the chemotherapy and radiation treatments he will have to undergo to try to prolong his life) with a special notice on their website.

Most of the time when Novak’s name comes up, people identify him as either a columnist published in the Washington Post or New York Post (both of which reprint the pieces that are published in the Sun-Times) or as a television pundit – once with CNN but most recently with Fox News Channel.

In a sense, the Sun-Times lost what little national face it had, although I have noticed in recent months that the newspaper’s lone Washington-based reporter, Lynn Sweet, is getting significant television attention as a so-called local pundit who knows the ways of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

Now for the people who like to dig up the acronym “MSM” and want to trash most of the reporting they read, it will be hard to accept this concept. But the loss of Novak will hurt the public understanding of our government.

WHO ELSE WILL give us those columns filled with little tidbits that tell us which conservative congressman feels a grudge and now senses a need to go after his enemies?

I don’t see many other people willing to do the kind of legwork involved in digging up such information. It certainly won’t be from the likes of Ann Coulter, whose most recent column that tried to trash former presidential hopeful John Edwards created a recent stir in downstate Illinois.

The State Journal-Register, the daily newspaper in the capital city of Springfield, publishes Coulter’s once-a-week rants (and officials there admit their readers are split pretty evenly about whether they enjoy or detest her presence in the newspaper).

But last week (on Friday, to be exact), Coulter’s column did not run.

SHE WROTE A commentary that tried to trash Edwards for allegedly fathering a child with a woman other than his wife, and she had some nasty quotations from people willing to speak ill of Edwards.

The problem is that Coulter didn’t do anywhere near the type of reporting it would take to nail down such a sordid story (which sometimes needs to be told). Her source, it turns out, was the National Enquirer, which has done a few pieces about the issue.

Journal-Register editors (in a note published on the newspaper’s website) said they had problems with the concept of an Enquirer story being relied on so heavily as the factual basis for Coulter’s commentary. When combined with borderline libelous quotes, they decided to scrap her commentary for the week.

Of course, they made a point of letting their readers know that Ann would be back in print at the end of this week. After all, her column apparently does draw in some readers in the rural Illinois region surrounding the capital city where people are more than willing to buy into Coulter’s goofy conspiracy theories about evil liberals dragging our society into the pits of Hades.

THIS IS THE difference between the new and old ways of thinking in newsgathering.

Coulter and her ilk were more than willing to buy into a goofy Enquirer piece because she could spin it to fit with her views on what life should be about (basically, that certain people who do not fit into her view of the world need to crawl back into a hole and stay away from her).

I doubt Ann cares about what really happened with Edwards, and probably will lambaste me as some sort of freak for wanting to know truth.

I’m not saying Novak would not have pursued the same story, and would not have produced copy that would have echoed with glee at being able to nail Edwards for his alleged activity.

BUT HE WOULD have done his own digging for information, and probably would have come up with details that would have surpassed anything the Enquirer could exaggerate.

That willingness to dig for information – that is what I look for in trying to decide whether a reporter-type is worth paying attention to. And it is the reason I think the Sun-Times (regardless of how they ultimately fill his space on the editorial page) will now be a little less substantive in its content, now that Novak has to focus his attention on survival – rather than digging up another “scoop.”


EDITOR’S NOTES: Robert Novak’s sudden discovery of a brain tumor has resulted in (http://www.suntimes.com/news/novak/1089872,novak080408.article) his retirement, following (http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/04/novak-announces-retirement/?hp) nearly five decades as a reporter and commentator about the news out of Washington.

The decision by editors of the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill., to “kill” a column (http://blogs.sj-r.com/editor/index.php/2008/08/04/coulter-watch-readers-weigh-in/) by pundit Ann Coulter has outraged some of the newspaper’s readers. Figure out for yourself (http://www.anncoulter.com/cgi-local/printer_friendly.cgi?article=264) whether this column is too absurd to be published.

No comments: