The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, December 04, 2004

It doesn't stand to reason

In fact, to mangle Mae West, reason has nothing to do with it.

The layman venturing into a subject is always well-advised to check his intuition at the door. The application of analogy (the mechanism for which seems to operate as if hard-wired into the brain) is particularly liable to draw him wayward. The temptation to assimilate the unfamiliar to things previously experienced seems overwhelming. The little knowledge he has truly can be dangerous - or embarrassing, at least.

Regular readers of your humble blogger will be more than familiar with these difficulties!

For instance, the significance of the extravagantly futile proposed homo-marriage amendment to the US Constitution escaped me at the time: that it was a curtain-raiser to the State amendments that would draw a wedge of otherwise non-voting fanatics into the polls, who, whilst they were on the premises, would vote for Bush, did not occur.

In the field of journalism (for want of a better word), we had an example of news management in excelsis: burying a story [1] on the front page of the Washington Post.

The Amy Sullivan piece on Robert Novak (mentioned yesterday) explores yet another phenomenon inexplicable by application of first principles.

Starting with the obvious: that, whilst Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper (who didn't do the story) are facing Club Fed over the Plame business, Novak (who did) has yet to have a judicial glove laid on him in the affair. And no one (well, Sullivan identifies one) amongst his colleagues challenge him in public on the matter.

She identifies an incestuous little arrangement whereby Novak plugs books put out by Regnery Publishing (marketing director: Alex Novak - the son also rises...) whose owner
also owns Eagle Publishing, which distributes the “Evans-Novak Political Report,” available to subscribers for an annual $297 rate.

Sweet [2].

And Novak's way with background briefings:
others attend off-the-record meetings or briefings, tell him about it, and he reports not just what was said, but fingers those who spoke as well.

The institution deserves to crapped upon, but - well, preferably, by someone of slightly higher moral stature.

She notes his idée fixe about fixed elections - his complaint about the South Dakota US Senate election in 2002 I discussed at the time [3], which he made without adducing any evidence at all, and, after a kinda-sorta retraction, was pretty much never mentioned in Big Media again.

How does he get away with it? He's too useful to pols from both sides of the aisle [4] to jettison for such peccadilloes as these:
Sources came to him to push a partisan agenda, he allowed himself to be the conduit for their leaks, and in return they rewarded him with future scoops and access.

And, as if to widen the field of play for his disinformation machine, he obtained a very useful ruling [4]:
In 1984, he and Evans were sued by a New York University professor after Novak penned a column arguing that the professor should not be made chair of the University of Maryland's political science department; the U.S. Court of Appeals decided that opinion columnists—as opposed to reporters—had First Amendment rights to use “reckless hyperbole,” as none other than Robert Bork's concurring opinion put it.

Backed up by the ruling, in 1989 the pair innuendoed that Rep Tom Foley was queer:
the alleged homosexuality of one Democrat who might move up the succession ladder.

(Presumably, Foley was Majority Leader at the time: he became Speaker later in 1989.)

He has his own Ahmed Chalabi:
In 1997, he relied on Robert Hanssen—later caught for and convicted of spying for the Soviets—as the primary source for a column accusing Attorney General Janet Reno and the Justice Department of covering up campaign finance scandals. Novak later disclosed the identity of his famous source, explaining his decision to do so on the grounds that the circumstance was “obviously extraordinary.” Writing about his relationship with the spy, Novak admitted that it was possible “he was merely using me to undermine Reno.”

Funny guy.

My druther is that all this nonsense will change when the first Plame hack finds himself, or herself, in the hoosegow. My guess is that there are plenty who know where Novak's bodies are buried. And surely professional comity only goes so far.

But, as ever, I stand by for further education.

  1. The title of the August 6 2001 PDB: Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US (May 24).

  2. Rowland Evans, that is, of the New York Herald-Tribune.

  3. January 13

  4. Bob Shrum is apparently a regular source for Novak.

  5. Amazingly, a Google search on "reckless hyperbole" bork returns only Sullivan's article. The case, I find, is Ollman v Evans and Novak, which
    provided guidelines on what constitutes an opinion, as opposed to a factual assertion, in the context of a libel claim that, as described below, was dismissed before trial. (Under libel doctrine, a suit must be based on a provably false assertion of fact, not on an opinion with which one disagrees.)
    Apparently, no text of the opinions exists online.

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