A bunch of guys barking

Jonah Goldberg

8/10/2005 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg

Much of Washington is having a grand time tittering about Robert Novak's potty mouth. But they're missing the big picture.

Here are the facts. On a recent CNN broadcast, Novak was paired with James Carville for an "Inside Politics" discussion. Nothing new there. In a boring, but heated, discussion about the Florida Senate race, Carville attacked Novak's integrity saying, "He's got to show these right-wingers that he's got backbone. The Wall Street Journal editorial page is watching. You show 'em you're tough!"

Nothing really new there either. That's how Carville argues about most things. It's a tactic he honed working for Bill Clinton, where the response to every inconvenient fact or viewpoint was to attack he motives of those offering them.

What was new, however, was Novak's response, "I think that's [male bovine you-know-what] and I hate that." He then walked off the set.

Novak's outburst was unprofessional and he apologized for it. CNN has suspended him indefinitely.

The anchor moderating the "debate," Ed Henry, was quick to claim that Novak's outburst was a ploy to avoid answering a question about his role in the Valerie Plame controversy. The press loved this interpretation, giving it wide play, in part because Carville pushed it.

This strikes me as plain batty. Novak has appeared on television hundreds of times since the Plame controversy started, and he's been on CNN for more than a quarter-century. He's notoriously fond of being on television. The idea that Novak would risk his TV gig and his reputation for fear of having to say "no comment" for the 8 billionth time is absurd. Besides, he was told before he went on-air that he was going to be asked about Plame. Why not just refuse to go on?

And for Carville to buy into this nonsense is like a guy with horrifically bad breath assuming that someone walked away from an argument because he didn't know how to rebut his points.

This all illuminates the rot in cable news political discourse. I had a contract with CNN for about four years, which meant I was obliged to be on call for the usual five-minute mini-debates that are a staple on all the news networks. Before that, I committed similar punditry on Fox and MSNBC. On all the networks, but I think particularly on CNN, there's a habit of pairing opinion journalists with "political consultants" - i.e., party mouthpieces and activists.

I hate the practice because it makes it almost impossible to argue in good faith. I disagree with the Bush administration on a wide number of issues - from immigration policy and "compassionate conservatism" to its grotesque overspending. But it's very hard to offer a balanced defense when your opponent is shouting that you're a whore to the GOP and that Bush is a liar with his pants on fire.

Take, for example, what was once CNN's flagship political program. From 2000 until its recent demise, "Crossfire" featured Novak and Tucker Carlson on the right versus Paul Begala and Carville (and before that it was Bill Press, a former Democratic Party operative). You don't have to be fans of Novak and Carlson to see that they have jobs and backgrounds different from Begala's and Carville's. Both Novak and Carlson are journalists - opinion journalists, to be sure, but journalists nonetheless. They speak for nobody but themselves and they have a long-term interest in maintaining their credibility. Obviously, they have views more amenable to conservatives and Republicans, but that's different from being on the payroll of the Republican Party. For example, Novak never supported the Iraq war and Carlson doesn't now.

Carville and Begala, meanwhile, are party operatives and always have been. They were even advisors to the Kerry campaign while still keeping their "analyst" jobs at CNN.

"Crossfire" was cancelled by CNN's new president, Jonathan Klein, because he thought it was just "a bunch of guys screaming at each other" and did "nothing to illuminate the issues of the day." Klein was right, but whose fault was that?

In the fallout of the Novak outburst, Klein defended Carville's jibes at Novak, saying they were completely within bounds. That's all too true. But guess who defines the bounds?

This is a bipartisan point. CNN and the other networks pair GOP hacks and mouthpieces against liberal journalists all the time, too. As I was told more than once, one of the chief complaints producers had when they put conservative and liberal journalists on was that there was "too much agreement."

Of course, there are plenty of pundits who are in the tank for the Republicans or the Democrats. But as a general rule, the pundits tend to believe they're doing their jobs by offering their views in good faith. Party flacks by definition define a job well done as making their boss's case.

If it was outrageous - and it was - for Armstrong Williams to take money from the administration in exchange for offering his opinions, why isn't it just a little outrageous for the news networks to blur deliberately the difference between opinion journalists and party hacks? That's the real B.S., and I hate it.