Following Vice President Dick Cheney's exclusive February 15 interview with Fox News' Brit Hume, the media widely reported that he took "full responsibility" for accidentally shooting Harry Whittington while hunting. But numerous news outlets have ignored that Cheney's acceptance of responsibility contradicts his friends' prior statements that Whittington was to blame.
Following Vice President Dick Cheney's exclusive February 15 interview with Fox News Washington managing editor Brit Hume, the media widely reported that he took "full responsibility" for accidentally shooting 78-year-old Texas lawyer Harry Whittington while hunting the previous weekend. Most reports have cited Cheney's statement in the interview that "it was not Harry's fault. You can't blame anybody else. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend." But numerous news outlets have failed to note that Cheney's acceptance of responsibility contradicts the accounts put forth by his friends and supporters in the days following the incident, in which they put the blame squarely on Whittington.
On the morning of February 12, the day after the shooting, the vice president agreed that Katharine Armstrong, the owner of the ranch where the incident took place, would alert "a reporter she knew at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times" to issue the first news of the incident, according to a February 16 New York Times article. During the subsequent two days, Armstrong was the only person who was present when the incident occurred to provide details to reporters. On February 13, numerous newspapers quoted Armstrong asserting that Whittington had not followed proper hunting protocol by failing to make his presence known as he rejoined the hunting group prior to the shooting:
- A Corpus Christi Caller-Times article (registration required) headlined "Whittington had not made presence known" quoted Armstrong saying, "If you drop out of line, you say you are coming up behind indicate to other shooters so you know they are there."
- Armstrong told the Associated Press that Whittington "came up from behind the vice president and the other hunter and didn't signal them or indicate to them or announce himself. ... The vice president didn't see him."
- The New York Times quoted Armstrong saying that Whittington "did not announce -- which would be protocol -- 'Hey, it's me, I'm coming up.' ... He didn't do what he was supposed to do."
- The Houston Chronicle reported that Armstrong blamed Whittington for not "announcing himself" as he approached Cheney, stating: "You're always supposed to let other hunters know where you are." Armstrong also said of Whittington: "I think his pride was hurt more than anything else."
During his February 13 press briefing, White House press secretary Scott McClellan repeated Armstrong's claim that Whittington had not followed protocol:
McCLELLAN: I don't know all the specifics about it, but I think Mrs. Armstrong spoke publicly about how this incident occurred. And if I recall, she pointed out that the protocol was not followed by Mr. Whittington, when it came to notifying the others that he was there.
Armstrong was not the only one who directed blame at the victim. Appearing on the February 13 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, former Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-WY) touted the hunting prowess of his "old pal" Cheney while also blaming Whittington:
SIMPSON: Cheney has his full bag of doves and quail. He's an expert shot and a great hunter and a great sportsman, but if the people with him aren't following the laws and the protocol of quail hunting, somebody gets hurt.
Moreover, according to an anonymous "GOP source" quoted in a February 15 New York Daily News article, in the days following the incident, Cheney himself confided to friends that Whittington "was in a place he shouldn't be."
But during his February 15 interview with Hume, Cheney said he was the one to blame:
HUME: So how, in your judgment, did this happen? Who -- what caused this? What was the responsibility here?
CHENEY: Well, ultimately, I'm the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry. And you can talk about all of the other conditions that existed at the time, but that's the bottom line. And there's no -- it was not Harry's fault. You can't blame anybody else. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend.
Following the interview, numerous news outlets highlighted that Cheney had accepted responsibility without noting that his friends -- and reportedly he himself -- had earlier placed the blame on Whittington. A February 16 New York Times article by staff writers David E. Sanger and Anne E. Kornblut uncritically reported that Cheney "took full responsibility," despite the fact that a separate Times article published that day noted that "Ms. Armstrong initially faulted Mr. Whittington." Further, Sanger and Kornblut wrote that Cheney "said no one intended to blame" Whittington. But at no point in the interview did he comment on anyone else's intentions, merely stating, "You can't blame anybody else."
Other media outlets that uncritically reported Cheney's acceptance of responsibility included USA Today, The Wall Street Journal (subscription required), Reuters, Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, ABC's Nightline, and CBS' The Early Show.
By contrast, a February 16 Los Angeles Times article by staff writers Peter Wallsten and Nicholas Riccardi reported that Cheney "took responsibility" for the accident, but noted that his tone differed from "earlier statements by the White House and some defenders of the vice president, who had said Texas lawyer Harry Whittington might have erred by stepping into Cheney's line of fire and failing to announce his presence." AP staff writer Nedra Pickler similarly contrasted Cheney's acceptance of responsibility with Armstrong's prior suggestion "that Whittington was at fault in the shooting because, she said, he failed to announce himself as he rejoined the hunting line." A February 16 article by Washington Post staff writer Peter Baker noted that "according to Armstrong, [Whittington] did not let his partners know he had returned."
Moreover, ABC's World News Tonight not only mentioned Armstrong's previous efforts to place the blame on Whittington but went a step further, noting that the apparent discrepancy between her and Cheney's accounts of who was to blame for the incident seemed to contradict the vice president's assertion that, for reasons of accuracy, it was the "right call" to choose Armstrong as the primary spokesperson. In a report on the February 15 edition of the program, ABC News chief White House correspondent Martha Raddatz contrasted Cheney's claim in the interview that "accuracy was enormously important" with the fact that Armstrong's representation of the event was apparently inaccurate:
RADDATZ: The vice president said today he agreed with Armstrong that she should be the one to tell the local paper. Why?
CHENEY: She'd seen the whole thing. Secondly, she'd grown up on the ranch, she'd hunted there all of her life. Third, she was the immediate past head of the Texas Wildlife and Parks Department. I thought that was the right call.
HUME: What do you think now?
CHENEY: Well, I still do. I still think that the, the accuracy was enormously important.
RADDATZ: But it was Armstrong who placed blame on Whittington, saying he made a mistake by not announcing to the vice president that he had walked up to rejoin the hunting line.
Later in the show, anchor Elizabeth Vargas and ABC chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos agreed that this apparent contradiction "undercut" Cheney's assertion that he made the "right decision" in selecting Armstrong to speak to the press:
VARGAS: But there is still a contradiction, isn't there? I mean, he says it was the right decision to let Katharine Armstrong give that version of events, while saying it was his responsibility. And her version of the events placed responsibility squarely on Mr. Whittington's shoulders.
STEPHANOPOULOS: It did. And you know, the fact that he thought she was going to be the more credible witness is undercut right now.
On February 15, Media Matters for America noted that anchor Kyra Phillips and White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux had uncritically reported that Cheney had accepted responsibility. In her subsequent reports on the story, however, Malveaux has continued to stress that Cheney took full responsibility in the interview while ignoring that Armstrong had earlier placed the blame on Whittington [see here, here, here, here and here]. Meanwhile, CNN White House correspondent Dana Bash's separate reports on the Cheney interview have included mention of this aspect of the story.
HUME: Vice President Cheney breaks his silence tonight on this broadcast. In an exclusive interview, Mr. Cheney responds to questions regarding that hunting accident over the weekend, including accepting full responsibility for the incident. The interview itself is coming up, but first, highlights in this report from chief White House correspondent Carl Cameron.
CARL CAMERON (Fox News chief White House correspondent): Four days after the incident, in an interview with Fox News, Vice President Dick Cheney spoke publicly for the first time about accidentally shooting his Texas hunting partner late Saturday afternoon.
CHENEY: Ultimately, I'm the guy that pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry. And you can talk about all of the other conditions that existed at the time, but that's the bottom line. And there's no -- it was not Harry's fault. You can't blame anybody else. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend.
TERRY MORAN (anchor): We begin with the vice president as we've never seen him before. Personal, pained and decidedly unpolitical. Dick Cheney described today what he called one of the worst days his life, Saturday's disastrous Texas hunting outing, when he accidentally shot his fellow hunter, 78-year-old lawyer Harry Whittington. Today, Whittington remains in the hospital. And Dick Cheney, under increasing pressure for the silence and information delays that followed the shooting, sat down with the Fox News Channel to explain himself.
Dick Cheney broke his silence and took responsibility for his actions.
CHENEY: Ultimately, I'm the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry. And you can talk about all of the other conditions that existed at the time but that's the bottom line. And there's no -- it was not Harry's fault. You can't blame anybody else. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend.
BILL PLANTE (CBS White House correspondent): So yesterday, with a push from the White House, the vice president himself took full responsibility for the accident.
CHENEY: You can't blame anyone else. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend. And to say that's a moment I'll never forget.
PLANTE: Why didn't the White House announce that the vice president had been involved in a shooting accident? The White House was notified of the incident, but Cheney himself didn't talk to anyone until Sunday morning and then decided to let his hostess, Katharine Armstrong, make the announcement.
CHENEY: I think Katharine was an excellent choice. I don't know who you could get better as the basic source for the story than the witness who saw the whole thing.