Media takes unfair aim at Cheney

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Anyone who has watched the Discovery Channel or knows anything about sharks understands what happens when there's blood in the water. They go completely nuts trying to get a piece of flesh.

With that perspective, it's easier to explain the media feeding frenzy we all got to witness this week when news came out of Texas that Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally peppered high-dollar lawyer Harry Whittington with bird shot during a hunting trip.

Aside from the inevitable jokes and barbs from the Internet, late night comedians and comparisons to Aaron Burr, (my favorite was a bumper sticker reading "I'd rather go hunting with Dick Cheney than riding with Teddy Kennedy") came the over-analysis and "what if" speculation from people whose job is to tell us what happened, not what they think about it.

The first headline on the wire actually said it was Cheney that was shot, but this error was corrected minutes later. However the real rending of garments and gnashing of teeth came when the White House press crew learned that they had been scooped by a small-town newspaper where the shooting incident took place.

It happened as it does here at the Times-Gazette and other small papers across the nation; the owner of the property where the accident occurred called a local reporter they knew and trusted and gave them the scoop.

This sent the big boys in the White House press pool into hysterics. "A private citizen actually informed the local press instead of us! How dare they!" It appeared to annoy them to no end that a journalist actually got the story the old fashioned way -- by being trusted by the people involved and having a good local network of sources instead of waiting around for a big news conference where they can all report the same story at the same time with different spin.

The media's dissatisfaction was apparent during Monday's morning's press gaggle, when Press Secretary Scott McClellan took more abuse than questions from an obviously ticked-off room of journalists. One reporter actually asked "Is it appropriate for the vice president to offer his resignation?" Another compared the hunting accident to the story on murdered Washington intern Chandra Levy. NBC's David Gregory was so bent out of shape over it that he got into a shouting match with McClellan, with the tapes rolling.

The story quickly shifted from the incident itself to questions about "what Bush knew and when did he know it ... and why didn't you tell us!!!" But had the White House released the information before the Whittington family gave permission, that would have been a violation of the federal privacy rule called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 [HIPAA], which would have led to a whole other scandal.

The tone of the coverage tells us more about the journalists than the story they are writing about and the reaction of the big boys in the news business can be summed up pretty well by the headlines. The Los Angeles Times had "Hunter Suffers Setback as Criticism of Cheney Grows," the Washington Post led with "Cheney's Response A Concern In GOP," and "Handling of Mishap Creates Strain in the White House," was featured in large type on the front page of the New York Times.

David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist said that "arrogance of power is on display with the Bush administration," and proceeded to compare Cheney's hunting accident to Chappaquiddick and Watergate. Somehow, a 14-hour delay in letting the press know about this just isn't quite the same as leaving someone to drown in a car while fleeing the scene of an accident and not informing police for an entire day.

One paper found the pair were hunting illegally, since they hadn't paid a $7 fee for hunting quail.

Some of the language used in depicting this story over the past week appears to really make more of the incident than it should. An AP report on Wednesday stated that the 78-year-old lawyer was "hit by a shotgun blast," which sounds much more dramatic that the first reports on Sunday that said Cheney "accidentally shot and injured a man."

The same AP report had a headline stating that Whittington was "Still Stable." But the story itself quoted the hospital administrator saying he was "doing extremely well." So, which is it?

Another report stated the incident took place on "a private ranch." Well, it wasn't a public ranch, that's for sure, but on someone's property; yep, that's pretty private. To me, the wording seems to be a dig at the fact the press had no access to Cheney during the hunting trip and may also be a way to show Republicans as "elitist."

The New York Times was playing the "what if" angle, namely speculating what would happen if Whittingham died within the next year, kicking off a grand jury investigation. One wonders if there weren't some fingers crossed at the offices of the Old Grey Lady over the prospect.

The craziest one came from North Carolina columnist Barry Saunders, who claimed the Cheney shooting was not an accident, but instead a message to Scooter Libby not to testify against him in the Valerie Plame leak investigation.

Late in the week, media outlets were continuously stating that "questions persist" about the incident. Given the fact that they are the ones asking the persistent questions, this should be no surprise.

The fact the mainstream media were scooped this badly means another thing: Lots of White House press people are now going to be forced to camp out on the sides of lonely country roads for days on end every time Cheney goes for a little R&R. I imagine they are asking Bush's press pool just how dull Crawford, Texas really is.

What I can't figure out is where were the howls of media outrage when Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada failed to inform reporters of his stroke for an entire three days last year. The health of a key member of government would sound like an important story, especially if he was off the radar for nearly a whole working week.

Another story that went mostly unreported was when Sen. Hillary Clinton's motorcade ran over and injured a police officer who was manning a security post at the Westchester County Airport in New York one month after 9/11. I'll leave any speculation for the reasons behind the lack of coverage of this incident to our readers.

Anyhow, if some really think Cheney did this on purpose, much of Capitol Hill should be truly nervous.

After all, he did shoot a lawyer.