Frank Rich takes on Armstrong Williams, Robert Novak, and wonders just who else is on the take.
One day after the co-host Tucker Carlson made his farewell appearance and two days after the new president of CNN made the admirable announcement that he would soon kill the program altogether, a television news miracle occurred: even as it staggered through its last nine yards to the network guillotine, “Crossfire” came up with the worst show in its fabled 23-year history.
This was a half-hour of television so egregious that it makes Jon Stewart’s famous pre-election rant seem, if anything, too kind. This time “Crossfire” wasn’t just “hurting America,” as Mr. Stewart put it, by turning news into a nonsensical gong show. It was unwittingly, or perhaps wittingly, complicit in the cover-up of a scandal.
“On the right” was the columnist Robert Novak, who “in the interests of full disclosure” told the audience he is a “personal friend” of Mr. Williams, whom he “greatly” admires as “one of the foremost voices for conservatism in America.” Needless to say, Mr. Novak didn’t have any tough questions, either, but we should pause a moment to analyze this “Crossfire” co-host’s disingenuous use of the term “full disclosure.”
Last year Mr. Novak had failed to fully disclose – until others in the press called him on it – that his son is the director of marketing for Regnery, the company that published “Unfit for Command,” the Swift boat veterans’ anti-Kerry screed that Mr. Novak flogged relentlessly on CNN and elsewhere throughout the campaign. Nor had he fully disclosed, as Mary Jacoby of Salon reported, that Regnery’s owner also publishes his subscription newsletter ($297 a year). Nor has Mr. Novak fully disclosed why he has so far eluded any censure in the federal investigation of his outing of a C.I.A. operative, Valerie Plame, while two other reporters, Judith Miller of The Times and Matt Cooper of Time, are facing possible prison terms in the same case. In this context, Mr. Novak’s “full disclosure” of his friendship with Mr. Williams is so anomalous that it raised many more questions than it answers.
[I]s Mr. Williams merely the first one of his ilk to be exposed? Every time this administration puts out fiction through the news media – the “Rambo” exploits of Jessica Lynch, the initial cover-up of Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire – it’s assumed that a credulous and excessively deferential press was duped. But might there be more paid agents at loose in the media machine? In response to questions at the White House, Mr. McClellan has said that he is “not aware” of any other such case and that he hasn’t “heard” whether the administration’s senior staff knew of the Williams contract – nondenial denials with miles of wiggle room. Mr. Williams, meanwhile, has told both James Rainey of The Los Angeles Times and David Corn of The Nation that he has “no doubt” that there are “others” like him being paid for purveying administration propaganda and that “this happens all the time.” So far he is refusing to name names – a vow of omertà all too reminiscent of that taken by the low-level operatives first apprehended in that “third-rate burglary” during the Nixon administration.
If CNN, just under new management, wants to make amends for the sins of “Crossfire,” it might dispatch some real reporters to find out just which “others” Mr. Williams is talking about and to follow his money all the way back to its source.
It’s one thing for a columnist or pundit to be sympathetic with the goals and aspirations of a presidential administration on either side of the aisle, but it reeks of desperation when you have to be paid to do it. It also gives hookers a bad name.