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Was Robert Novak a Journalist?

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Here is Clarence Page on Robert Novak, who died earlier this week:

We seldom agreed on political issues, but he always knew how to make a good case for his side. More important, at a time when just about everyone who has a keyboard seems to think they can be a journalist, Novak showed how the best way we can serve the public is through solid, glamour-free fact-gathering. Our audiences will be the final judges of whether we have done the right thing.

You probably know where this is going, but Page was doing fine until he heaped his scorn on the "unprofessionals" -- the folks with no press credential other than their keyboard.

Page is confusing a couple of things here. First, no journalist should have a "side." At least not one that shows. The job of the journalist is to give both or all sides their due, to give them a fair hearing. Page and Novak, however, long ago transcended the definition of "journalist" to become members of a different caste, that of the commentator. Commentators espouse opinion. They approach issues from a perspective.

A problem with where media finds itself today is that all the roles are confused. Feeding the beast means that reporters find themselves pressed into video duty to explain their stories before the copy is filed. True, some go gladly into the glare. And, honestly, doing so is smart and inescapable.

But asking reporters what they think of the stories they are covering blurs the line between what reporters do and what commentators do. So if we know what a commentator is, what is a journalist?

Page seems to think -- if I may put words into his mouth -- that journalists can only be those who are in a fraternity of ... of ... what?

For the longest time, what made a journalist was a city editor who decided, based on the cut of someone's jib or gleam in their eye or turn in their phrase. Then the ranks were mostly filled with the professionally trained, holders of degrees similar to mine.

Under the watch of my degreed cohort, journalism has entered what most say is a death spiral, but what even the most charitable say is a time of flux.

Where the Pages see anarchy and mountebanks with laptops, I see a democratization, a rebelling against being spoonfed information that leaves us starved and suffocated.

I'll take the democracy, even if it borders on anarchy, over the cloister of the fraternity.

But Novak or Page could not be commentators without first having been journalists. What made Novak a good commentator -- regardless of what you thought of his politics -- were the same things that made him a good journalist. People other than Page, who are unable to see past Novak's politics, don't understand journalism.

Novak was nobody's lapdog and he was unafraid to say -- and write -- what he thought.

Best of all, love him or hate him, he was always interesting.

Most people vilify him for his role in the Plame-Wilson affair as the person who 'outed' Plame. However, a close reading of the whole matter shows, first, that there were no heroes in that whole saga and, second, Novak was just doing what a good reporter does, tenaciously going after a story and the flatulent posers trying to peddle their own versions of it.

So with journalism lumbering through a period of spasmodic ineptitude, the people with hopes for its future could do worse than to emulate Novak's joy of the hunt, his fierce determination in getting at the crux, his refusal to be cowed and his understanding of the darker natures of the folks at the levers of power.

I blanch at the thought of a press corps without his sturdy sense of what's right and true.