Getting ‘down in the weeds’ — Robert Novak, David Broder and modern journalism
By Patrick B. McGuigan
NOTE: This is adapted and updated from a November 9, 2009 commentary. Novak died on August 18, 2009. Broder passed away on March 11, 2011.
The passing of Robert Novak on August 18, 2009 brought introspection about my chosen profession.
In a typically well-crafted commentary [published August 22, 2009 in The Oklahoman], Washington Post columnist David Broder praised Novak as notable “for the energy with which he tackled his assignments.” He described Novak as one of the three best political reporters who emerged from the 1960s, and characterized commentaries Novak wrote with Rowland Evans, Jr. as “one of the most influential columns of the late 20th century.”
Broder wrote with some sadness that Novak and two other of his early contemporaries, Alan Otten and Paul Duke of The Wall Street Journal, were journalistic types we are not likely to see again. Novak and the others were reporters brought to Washington, D.C., “by editors who had a passionate commitment to covering Congress and politics as if the decisions being debated really mattered.”
As Broder observed, journalism in those days meant, and for some still means, “’getting down in the weeds,’ really understanding the personal dynamics of a Ways and Means subcommittee or the ambitions of the lieutenant governor of Texas.”
Broder seemed to regret that most Americans may best remember Novak for his television reputation as “The Prince of Darkness,” the pugnacious conservative. I knew Bob Novak as well and, as Broder reports, his conservatism was real. Novak often fought with Evans over the contents of their legendary collaborations. That “darkness” was rooted less in his combativeness than in what Novak himself called an “unsmiling pessimism about the prospects for America and Western civilization.”
Year after year, Novak managed to do both commentary and straight reporting, rarely if ever “burning” a source on the political left or right. They knew he would report accurately and fairly what he learned. And, he protected confidential sources when necessary.
Several years ago, during the presidency of George W. Bush, many liberals grew inflamed over a Novak report touching on the run-up to the Iraq war which included controversial intelligence disclosures. I predicted to friends that Novak’s critics would be wrong about the sourcing of those reports. When the primary source for the story was finally revealed, it was one of the moderates (not a “hawk”) in the Bush administration. Among prominent liberal journalists who never did trash Novak’s reporting in the matter was Sam Donaldson, the ABC-TV veteran who knew Novak well.
Novak was a member of the Society of Professional Journalists for more than 40 years. At SPJ’s 2007 national conference, he and former Time Magazine editor Normal Pearlstine presented a session on “Watching the Watchdogs.” They discussed ethical challenges journalists face when they become players in the stories they cover.
Novak might have been the most productive scribe of the post-World War II era. He and Evans wrote “Inside Report” six days a week for 30 years (1963-93). He sustained the column three days a week until his final illness forced his retirement in 2008. Novak’s CNN work spanned 25 years.
Among those who spent time at his bedside in his final months was Sen. Ted Kennedy. They were friends despite historic and consistent differences. I was always intrigued, during my years in Washington, over the stories that Kennedy’s staff in the U.S. Senate had a standing order to pull him from the floor any time “Bob” needed him. Novak would write a blistering commentary, then call Kennedy to give the liberal icon his say in the a follow-up news story.
As for Broder, who died on March 11, 2011, the Washington Post reporter and syndicated columnist leaned more toward the liberal end of the spectrum, yet both his news stories and his commentaries reflected such careful fairness that he became an icon for professional journalists. With the exception of his consistently negative readings on the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Broder modeled fairness.
When I was in Washington, D.C., Broder occasionally reported on my legal policy books, works which always included both Democrats and Republicans, but which had a conservative policy orientation. Broder’s comprehensive report on my first edited compilation on constitutional issues (“A Blueprint for Judicial Reform”) influenced other national journalists, leading to serious (if sometimes critical) news stories about that book.
Additionally, other writers at the Post regularly interviewed me on the politics of direct democracy. For 10 years, I edited a “straight news” monthly that became a regular information source for reporters in the mostly liberal (but in my experience mostly fair) “mainstream media.” After I became an editor at The Oklahoman in 1990, I edited Broder’s column for publication there, and occasionally interacted with him on professional matters.
The most substantive exchange we had in the 12 years I was with the Oklahoma Publishing Company was when Broder came to the state to raise money for a journalistic good cause in Tulsa. I traveled up the Turnpike to join him at a luncheon where he spoke to a group of Tulsa-based editors and reporters. Thereby lies a tale.
At the Tulsa session, Broder delivered a balanced critical assessment of the Oklahoma congressional delegation. His analysis was a model of journalistic sobriety, noting the strengths and weaknesses of each conservative in a 100 percent Republican (and pro-life) group of men. When he completed his evaluation of what he considered a consequential delegation having a major impact on national policy, he opened himself up to questions from the audience of journalists. I was inclined, as a guest of a Tulsa editor, not to intrude into that process.
Things got interesting. With the exception of one senior editor from Tulsa, the premise of the questions from Broder’s audience that day was persistently and harshly negative toward every one of the GOP conservatives he had assessed.
The point of most of the questioners was that the Oklahoma members of Congress were more or less ignoramuses, retrogrades and most likely racists, to boot.
Broder stuck to his guns, contending members of Congress from Oklahoma were respected and having an impact for things they believed in, regardless of what one thought of their policy preferences. It was clear, further, that he did not regard them as outside the American mainstream, but as effective advocates of conservative policy thought.
After rebuffing efforts to marginalize the state delegation, Broder then found himself defending the tolerant but conservative social views of former President Ronald Reagan. It was during the Reagan discussion that Broder turned my direction and asked if I agreed with his assessment, which of course I did.
The luncheon went like that. By the end of the session, it appeared David Broder was the second most conservative guy in the room.
Broder and Novak proved a good journalist can be both a straight reporter and an informed commentator. Novak spent an entire career modeling fairness and consistently superior methodology in journalism, and Broder did the same.
As news business models continue to evolve, the lesson that should be drawn from these two is that good journalism is not a product of one political philosophy or another, but flows from their persistent commitment to present opposing views fairly and in sufficient depth to allow honest consideration.
“Objectivity” is a word sometimes used as a weapon in modern debates about the news business. The word is over-rated by some, and inaccurately defined in some quarters.
Fairness, balance, depth of news sourcing and simply the ability to “walk a mile in the other fellow’s moccasins” are hallmarks of good journalism, including good commentary.
For all of the above, Novak and Broder provide wholesome examples.
Note: The original version of this essay first appeared in Perspective, the monthly magazine of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, and at Tulsa Today, an online news service. McGuigan is editor of The City Sentinel, founder of CapitolBeatOK.com, and a member of the National Press Club, The Tulsa Press Club, The Oklahoma City Gridiron Club and The Society of Professional Journalists. This spring, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame.