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Casting a Long Shadow

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009 9:28 AM

I seem to be in the obit business these days, as one major media figure after another passes from the scene.

After Tim Russert and Walter Cronkite and Robert Novak, the latest to depart is Don Hewitt, who died yesterday at 86. (Throw in Michael Jackson, Ed McMahon and Farrah Fawcett and death seems to be on a winning streak lately.)

Few television producers gain a slice of fame, but Hewitt invented the televised presidential debate (with JFK-Nixon in 1960), the 30-minute evening newscast (in 1963) and the TV newsmagazine ("60 Minutes" in 1968). Not a bad career.

Hewitt's great insight in putting together the program with Mike, Morley, Ed and the gang was that news stories could be packaged like a morality play. The correspondents were the good guys chasing the villains and holding them accountable. Each tale built to a climax, with viewers rooting for their favorites.

Hewitt once sent Mike Wallace to Washington to interview me for a piece that Wallace thought was done. After we finished chatting in front of the cameras, Wallace shook his head. "Don was right," he said with grudging admiration. "The story needed one more voice."

But Hewitt also masterminded the ambush interviews and hidden-camera probes that were a "60" signature in the early years and have now fallen out of favor. By today's standards, chasing someone on the street just to create confrontation seems rather staged and hokey. And Hewitt went along with a CBS decision to kill a Wallace interview with a tobacco whistleblower because of the threat of litigation (later recounted in the film "The Insider"). But Hewitt had far more hits than errors.

Novak, who died Tuesday, was a far more public, and controversial, figure, and not just because of the Valerie Plame case. What he did in cultivating sources is what many journalists (and "60 Minutes" staffers) do -- promise people anonymity in exchange for information. But as a conservative commentator, Novak not only picked sides, he made, in my view, an implicit agreement to go easier on those who were feeding him the tidbits that he needed to churn out his column and pepper his TV appearances. If you were outside his circle of helpful contacts, you could feel his wrath. That, to me, is a very slippery slope.

In Slate, Jack Shafer touches on this but reaches a different conclusion:

"While he would be the first to admit that digging well after well after well might unleash an occasional gusher of news, the brand of insider journalism he practiced depended on building relationships with the powerful and the connected, and he makes no bones about it in his book. For a half-century, Novak worked like a wheat thresher, feeding and grooming his sources until they gave him the harvest of news--or he beat it out of them. . . .

"Karl Rove, friendly with Novak if not a friend of his, made light of the columnist's strong-armed news-gathering strategies by wearing a 'I'm a Source, Not a Target' button to a June 2003 Washington party celebrating Novak's 40th year as a syndicated columnist. . . .

"So hungry was Novak for scoops and even scooplets that he sometimes failed to understand the greater meaning of what ended up in his notebook. The most memorable example of Novak's rush-to-publish style is the July 14, 2003, column that blew Valerie Plame's cover. Novak detractors insist at the time that he deliberately exposed her to punish her husband for dissenting from Bush administration policies. But knowing what we now know about Novak's Plame conversation with source Richard Armitage, it's evident that he wasn't targeting anybody with his column -- at least, not this time. Viewed in a more generous context, the Plame piece reads like so much of his work -- a jumble of great reporting desperately in need of a smart editor.

"There was meanness and toughness in Novak's work and in his personal style, and depending on your sensibilities, this cruelty either drew you to the man or repulsed you. Novak didn't have a chip on his shoulder -- he was all chip, as willing to shred his friends as he was his enemies."

The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes was mentored by the Prince of Darkness:

"Robert Novak terrified Washington. Elected and appointed officials, Democrats and Republicans, lobbyists and self-styled defenders of the 'public interest' -- few were comfortable when Novak had them in his sights. Nor should they have been. The reason was simple: Bob Novak didn't play political games. He wasn't partisan. If he came across useful information about anyone, it would appear in his syndicated column. . . .

"It's not too much to call Novak journalism's last honest man in Washington. Ideologically, he was conservative, the more so the older he grew. He was quite up front about this. But he didn't cover for his allies or mistreat his adversaries. If a conservative Republican disappointed him, Novak would let you know."

It's true that Novak was willing to take on the likes of George W. Bush and John McCain, but he took good care of his best sources. When Karl Rove -- one of his Plame sources -- left the White House in 2007, Novak acknowledged he had become controversial but called Rove "one of the canniest and most successful managers in American political history. . . . Rove is unique, a rare political mechanic with a comprehensive knowledge of American political history . . . one of the most effective, most powerful of all presidential aides."

Matthew Cooper, who almost went to jail in the CIA leak probe, says "there were things to admire about Robert Novak. . . .But there was a lot in Novak not to like, a mean gruff manner visible to anyone on TV, a stiletto pen that seemed more about destroying than illuminating. I disagreed with his politics but it wasn't his politics which were infuriating. It was his arch, cutting style that made him one of the journalists I wanted to avoid becoming. It was his behavior in the CIA leak case that made me think still less of him. . . .

"The decision to become a government witness isn't an easy one and in the end, every journalist involved in the case became one. So Novak's sin wasn't the cooperation but his total unwillingness to tell his readers, and those of us facing jail, what he had done. On one level, it's amusing that Mr. Tough Guy caved without putting up any kind of fight. But on another it's just disheartening that he could go for so long without answering the basic question about whether or not he was cooperating. According to Novak he chose to remain silent because the prosecutor had asked him to and because his lawyer advised such. But all of us in the case were asked by Patrick Fitzgerald to keep quiet and we were under no such obligations, which is why I wrote two first hand pieces about the case."

David Corn also tangled with Novak during the Plame imbroglio, and at one point, he recalls, "Novak got personal. He said:

"Mr. Corn is a nasty piece of work -- let me tell you that. And he was the one who really built this story up. He is in what I think is a deliciously ironic situation because he was one of the people -- much more, I believe, than Chris Matthews -- [responsible] for building this story up from the outset. . . . And he is in a position where most of the investigative work done by his partner [Michael] Isikoff he is a party to breaking down this story . . . which must actually destroy him.

"He also said of me, 'I don't think he's really interested in getting facts. He's interested in getting out a line.'

"But rather than being destroyed, I was delighted that our book, with all its playing-it-straight revelations about the CIA leak case and the Bush's administration sales job for the Iraq war, had become a bestseller. I was, however, saddened that Novak, who had admirably been a skeptic of the Bush-Cheney administration's decision to invade Iraq, had now become an apologist for the Bush White House (and Rove) on the CIA leak story."

Kennedy's Move

"Senator Edward M. Kennedy, in a poignant acknowledgment of his mortality at a critical time in the national health care debate, has privately asked the governor and legislative leaders to change the succession law to guarantee that Massachusetts will not lack a Senate vote when his seat becomes vacant," the Boston Globe reports.

Karl's Request

Speaking of Rove, he feels vindicated by two investigations and wants an apology from the New York Times and Washington Post.

'I Am Not a Crook'

"Nevada Sen. John Ensign says his affair with a friend's wife was different from former President Bill Clinton's affair because Clinton committed a felony when he lied about it to a grand jury. The Nevada Republican told the Associated Press on Wednesday: 'I haven't done anything legally wrong.' "

Gut Check

The stories about the health-care battle are starting to get more personal about the president. Roger Simon digs deep into the archives -- well, 2008 -- to ask:

"Could Hillary Clinton have been right about Barack Obama?

"Could she have been right when she said that he was the candidate of lofty promises -- 'the skies will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect' -- and not the candidate of real leadership?

"In her former life as a presidential candidate, Clinton warned voters that Obama would let them down. She warned them that when the going got tough, he would fold up.

"She said it was not just a matter of Obama lacking experience -- that was the least of it -- but that he lacked the strength, the toughness, the will to get the job done. . . .

"We are now going to see how he governs when it comes to meaningful health care reform. In his heart and in his head he knows what it takes for such reform. He knows that a public option -- a government-run health care program like Medicare -- has the best chance of competing with the insurance industry . . . How Obama acts right now on health care reform could tell us how he will act for the rest of his presidency."

In American Prospect, former Labor secretary Robert Reich also questions what Obama is made of:

"His centeredness, calm, and dignity inspire trust but also suggest a certain lack of combativeness, an incapacity to express indignation, and an unwillingness to identify enemies -- all of which makes him too willing to compromise. Perhaps no black man could win the trust of a majority of American voters without also being especially conciliatory, but this is small consolation to those like Sally who want their president to fight for them. . . .

"Americans have already sealed off the man from his agenda. The more they see of Obama (and the rest of his family) the more they like him. But likeability isn't connecting to specific policies. The longer universal health care hangs out there, for example, the more doubts Americans have about it. . . .

"The widening gap between admiration for Obama and cynicism about his policies also reinforces passivity in Obama's base, which makes it even harder to advance a specific agenda. His presidential campaign strengthened the nation's political grass roots and spawned hope for a new era of public engagement, but Obama's reluctance to fight for any specifics is causing the base to lose interest."

One response: road-testing a new message.

"President Obama sought Wednesday to reframe the health care debate as 'a core ethical and moral obligation,' imploring a coalition of religious leaders to help promote the plan to lower costs and expand insurance coverage for all Americans," the NYT reports.

Does that mean he's praying to get to 60 votes?

George Stephanopoulos floats another possibility: "In the wake of President Clinton's passionate pitch to the 'Netroots' convention last week, officials are debating whether to deploy Hillary too. No one may have more credibility than her in convincing Democrats that failure to compromise for the sake of getting something done has real consequences. But will weighing in detract from her current responsibilities as Secretary of State?"

For National Review's Jonah Goldberg, it's been an old-fashioned political fumble:

"To listen to the White House and its supporters in and out of the media, you would think that opposition to 'Obamacare' is the hobgoblin of a few small minds on the right. Racists, fascists, Neanderthals, the whole Star Wars cantina of boogeymen and cranks stand opposed to much-needed reform.

"Left out of this fairly naked effort to demonize many with the actions of a few is the simple fact that Obamacare -- however defined -- has been tanking in the polls for weeks. President Obama's handling of health care is unpopular with a majority of Americans and a majority of self-proclaimed independents. . . .

"The Obama administration has been astoundingly incompetent. Lashing out at the town-hall protesters, playing the race card, whining about angry white men, and whispering ominously about right-wing militias is almost always a sign of liberalism's weakness -- a failure of the imagination."

Playing the race card?

Sex Tapes for Profit

I knew there had to be an ethical issue in here someplace. Mediaite's Glynnis MacNicol examines the latest viral video:

"Have you seen Gawker's 'McSteamy, His Wife and a Fallen Beauty Queen's Naked Threesome' sex video yet? The post, which went up Tuesday afternoon, includes an edited down NSFW video of Eric Dane, his wife, actress Rebecca Gayheart and 'beauty-queen-turned-Hollywood-madam' Kari Ann Peniche, has currently clocked 1,375,051 views.

"It is Gawker's most-viewed post this year, and . . . surpassed Gawker's third most-trafficked post, 'Sarah Palin's Personal Emails.' In the five minutes it's taken me to write this much down, the post has seen an additional 7,000 views . . .

"So! Why are we pointing all this out? A couple of reasons. Last month, head of Gawker Media Nick Denton announced that he was reinstating the Gawker page view bonus system not only for the writers, but for tipsters whose tips result in a lot of traffic. Under the old system that meant for every 1,000 views a post got the writer of that post would get between five and seven extra dollars. On well-trafficked posts that was no small change . . .

"The writer of this post happens to be Gabriel Snyder, managing editor of Gawker, so we wondered whether the page bonus also apply to him. He says not really."

But is Mediaite also whoring for hits? Nah. Its picture of the naked Gayheart is obscured by two well-placed jars of Noxzema from her days in the cleansing cream commercials.

Sports and Sex Appeal

The last time we saw ESPN's Erin Andrews, it was against her will. This time, says Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times, she's posing:

"Let's say you were a famous female sports reporter caught in an illegally made peephole video showing you in the nude in your hotel room.

"How much time should pass before you're featured in a magazine pictorial showing football players ogling you on a pedestal?

"For ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews, the answer is, not long at all.

"Just weeks after the news of the video raised questions of how female reporters are sexualized by the sports media industry, Andrews has posed in a pictorial for GQ magazine showing mud-caked football players admiring her form."

Okay, but she is fully clothed.

The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz is also a CNN contributor and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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