CNN Stands by Embattled Novak

Also at the press tour: Comic strip artist Aaron McGruder talks about his Cartoon Network show. See C7.
Also at the press tour: Comic strip artist Aaron McGruder talks about his Cartoon Network show. See C7. (By Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)
By Lisa de Moraes
Monday, July 18, 2005

Robert Novak will not get the sack as contributor to CNN for his role in the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, at least while an investigation is being conducted, CNN/US president Jonathan Klein said yesterday.

"No one really knows what's going on in the investigation of the Valerie Plame incident," Klein said during CNN's Q&A session at Summer TV Press Tour 2005, in response to the very first question: "Why does Robert Novak continue to be employed by CNN?" "It would be awfully presumptuous of us to take steps against a guy and his career based on second, third, fourth-hand reporting."

Novak wrote a column for the Chicago Sun-Times naming Plame in July 2003, touching off a federal investigation.

The Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 says that whoever has access to classified information identifying a covert agent, knows the United States is taking measures to conceal the agent's relationship to the country, and intentionally identifies the agent to any individual not authorized to receive classified information shall be fined up to $50,000 and/or jailed for up to 10 years. It goes on to say that anyone who learns of the identity of the covert agent and discloses the information shall be fined up to $25,000 and/or imprisoned up to five years.

Plame's husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, has said the Bush administration leaked his wife's name to diss him after he publicly disputed the administration's claim that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium from Niger for possible use in making nuclear weapons.

New York Times reporter Judith Miller has been jailed for contempt after refusing to cooperate with prosecutors; Miller did not write a story about Plame. Novak, whom Klein yesterday called "one of the most outstanding political reporters this country has ever known," wrote a second column after his first one caused a kerfuffle, insisting he "did not receive a planned leak," that the CIA never warned him that the disclosure of Wilson's wife working at the agency would endanger her or anybody else and finally, that "it was not much of a secret" anyway.

Novak has refused to comment publicly about his sources or whether he has cooperated with prosecutors in the investigation, which has had Washington's knickers in a knot since news got out that back in July '03 deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove told another reporter facing jail time over this story that Wilson's wife apparently worked at the CIA.

"We can expect to see Novak on your air for a long time to come?" one critic asked CNN suits on stage yesterday.

"Yes," responded CNN News Group president Jim Walton.

"You had a discussion with him, you understand what happened? You don't see a problem for your organization?" the critic asked.

"I think we need to be careful how I answer that question," Walton responded, stating the obvious.

"When Bob Novak wrote that column he wrote it for the Chicago Sun-Times. And I was not privy to who his sources were . . . that did not go through the editorial process at CNN. He has broken no laws and he has distinguished himself as a journalist for many, many years . . . He brings a different voice to our air."

Asked whether the "furor" over the story presented any problems to the cable news network, Walton responded that "as a news organization you stand up to the heat sometimes. We as a . . . journalistic organization need to be very careful about decisions we make and the influences to those decisions," he said, adding that CNN strives to "make the best decision, the right decision, not based on the amount of noise coming in . . . from outside."

Because of the time it takes to get an animated series on the air, "Boondocks" creator Aaron McGruder recognizes that his new Cartoon Network late-night show of the same name can't be as topical as his syndicated cartoon strip. But, he joked yesterday, "we will still do a lot of mean and vicious" on the series, which debuts Oct. 2.

Asked if he was worried about "selling out" to get "The Boondocks" on the Time Warner-owned cable network, McGruder told Press Tour TV critics that "the selling-out happened a long time ago" and that he does not see much difference between doing business in Hollywood and doing business with the corporations he's in business with to syndicate his comic strip, which appears in more than 300 newspapers.

"You wouldn't get to see the strip if very powerful white corporations didn't allow you to see the strip," he said, adding that he does not pretend "I'm leading the revolution here. It's a show. It's really just a really funny and inappropriate show."

The biting, controversial strip is about an older African American man who becomes legal guardian of his outspoken grandkids and moves with them from the South Side of Chicago to the "boondocks," in this case the suburbs. In the strip, McGruder takes on everything from Sept. 11, 2001, to the personal life of Condoleezza Rice, to cable network Black Entertainment Television.

"The Boondocks" will run as part of Cartoon Network's late-night Adult Swim block of programming, targeting adult viewers, not kids. Still, a lot of the questions critics asked McGruder during yesterday morning's Q&A session concerned the use of the racial slur "nigger" on the show. Ironically, McGruder initially would not use the slur when he answered the questions, instead calling it "the N word," as had all reporters asking those questions. When he realized that might appear a tad, I don't know, hypocritical, he said the word quickly four times, but not before asking a Cartoon Network suit, "Am I allowed to say it?"

McGruder noted that he also uses the word in the comic strip, though it appears sometimes with asterisks and sometimes as "profanitype." He said he has used it extensively in the strip and is trying to use it "more and more," though it's "tough in newspapers" because "they're not really thrilled about it, but I keep trying to push them."

He uses the word, he explained, because "I think it makes the show sincere; at a certain point we've got to realize we all use bad language and the 'N' word is used so commonly, by not only myself but by a lot of people I know" and that it "feels fake to write around it and to avoid using it," he said.

Later, McGruder said he understands that the word offends people, adding "that's what late-night cable is for, I guess. You don't have to hear it at 8 o'clock, but you sure can hear it at 11:30, or 11 o'clock, on Adult Swim, if you so desire -- it will be there for you."

When one critic worried that white kids watching the show might start using the word after hearing it on the series, McGruder shot back "I think, 15, 16 years after the advent of gangster rap, young white kids have heard the word 'nigger' before. And they've said it maybe a few times . . . so if they start saying it all of a sudden on Oct. 3, I refuse to take responsibility."

One critic wondered: "Are there any restrictions at all on how often you can use the word" on the show?

"I think it's 160," cast member John Witherspoon cracked.

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