In days (long) gone by, the tradition was that gentlemen engaged in media work do not disparage other gentlemen engaged in media work. The protocol was blatantly violated from time to time. How, in the age of Drew Pearson, could one have got through a year without squawking, reviling, protesting -- perhaps dwelling on the case for the repeal of the First Amendment?
Still, it came always as something of a surprise when professional antagonism was acted on. Most recently we have had the case of Dan Rather against CBS. But as far as the general public is concerned, this is not a quarrel in which personal feelings are heavily engaged. Rather says that CBS deprived him of the opportunity to back his charge in the 2004 campaign that President Bush had faked his military record. There was nothing personal in that fight (that we know of), and the protagonists no doubt, as they confer with their lawyers, consider themselves observant of the rules for corporate criticisms.
But there isn't any way to remove Robert Novak from the hot seat here. In his widely read book "The Prince of Darkness," he lets out some pretty virulent stuff against, in particular, one man who is as active as an orbiting planet in partisan politics.
In the chapter in which Novak recounts his dissociation from CNN, he lets a great deal hang out. Novak is perhaps the premier journalistic figure in the land, an eminence he earned by years and decades of very hard work digging up stories, analyzing the news and urging perspectives that he found compelling.
He was of course a fixture on several CNN programs, primarily "Crossfire" and "Capital Gang," and then, after their demise, "Strategy Session." These programs were establishmentarian political jousts, Novak among the most prominent right-wingers. On the other side were sundry men and women of the left, but one of them has a way of coating his dissent with a bile that even a hardened antagonist finds difficult to come to terms with.
One day in 2005, Novak was appearing on "Strategy Session" opposite James Carville. On the air, Carville accused Novak of trying to curry favor with The Wall Street Journal editorial page. Novak protested. "Just let me finish what I'm going to say, James," Novak quotes the script. "Please, I know you hate to hear me, but you have --"
The book recounts, "Before I could finish that, a shouting Carville overrode what I had to say. 'He's got to show these right-wingers that he's got backbone,' Carville yelled. 'Show them you're tough.' Two and a half years of coping with Carville's ad hominem attacks welled up in me. 'Well, I think that's bullshit,' I said."
Novak rose from the desk. "I removed my microphone and stalked off the set."
The new gang running CNN had been looking for an excuse to dump Novak. Although he apologized immediately, CNN called his conduct "unacceptable" and let it be known that he was off CNN indefinitely. "I did not think I had committed a hanging offense," Novak writes. "Mark Shields in the past had twice used the same obscenity I employed, ... without comment by management. (CNN boss Jon) Klein's favorite TV critic, Jon Stewart, used much worse language in describing me. Indeed, I received a lot of favorable comment from conservatives who commented how pleased they were that I had finally told Carville how obnoxious he was."
Now this last is not properly used as mitigative of the offense. A commentator will almost certainly bring pleasure to a great many people by lambasting his enemy. Granted, Novak was here attempting to draw attention to the special odium Carville lives, eats and sleeps with. I had an encounter a few years ago with him, a debate at the University of Oklahoma. After what he said about me, a tribunal concerned with truth and justice should have ordered a firing squad to empty its guns at me at the end of the evening -- or at Carville, for making allegations so hideous.
What happened here is that CNN eased its most productive journalist off the airwaves, while it keeps Carville, soulmate and business partner of Democratic consultant Bob Shrum, a vigilante against the American right.
What Novak's book does not do is devise an acceptable means by which excesses can be curbed. Probably he has discovered what so many had done over the decades, that when rhetoric is heated, and the audience is permissive, you can't succeed in eliminating foul play. But we all suffer when the exercise of it has such an effect as to eliminate a Novak, while retaining a Carville.