Media left unanswered questions about sheriff's investigation and conclusions in Cheney shooting incident

››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN

Media reports regarding when the Kenedy County Sheriff's department actually interviewed Vice President Dick Cheney have varied widely and have sometimes conflicted, a fact that the media themselves have largely ignored.

Media reports concerning when the sheriff's department of Kenedy County, Texas, actually interviewed Vice President Dick Cheney about his accidental shooting of a hunting companion have varied widely, with little attention on the part of the media to the fact that reports have been inconsistent. Moreover, the media have virtually ignored the consequences of what the latest reports indicate was a 14-hour delay in the department's interviewing of Cheney about the incident. As a result, media have, by and large, simply reported without challenge assertions by law enforcement officials about what happened and have not noted how evidence might have been compromised by the delay. For example, media outlets have reported that law enforcement officials say that alcohol was not involved in the incident -- without noting that the officials are presumably relying on the word of Cheney and the others involved and without noting that interviewing the parties immediately after the incident would have presumably produced direct evidence on this question.

Though most reports now indicate that the sheriff's department chose not to question Cheney until Sunday, February 12, at 8 a.m. ET -- 14 hours after the shooting -- several different accounts have emerged. On February 14, The New York Times reported that Sheriff Ramon Salinas III "said the Secret Service called him shortly after the shooting occurred" and that Salinas sent chief deputy Gilbert San Miguel "to the Armstrong Ranch that night. He said Mr. Sanmiguel interviewed Mr. Cheney and reported that the shooting was an accident."

But the Times' February 14 report conflicted with other news reports from that day, which indicated that a law enforcement official had been barred from the Armstrong Ranch the night of the shooting. The Washington Post reported on February 14:

Local law enforcement officials did not interview Cheney until Sunday morning, about 14 hours after the shooting, in an agreement worked out between the Secret Service and Kenedy County Sheriff Ramon Salinas III. Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said at least one deputy was turned away shortly after the shooting because security personnel at the ranch were not aware of the agreement between the sheriff and the Secret Service.

On February 15, the Times also reported that Cheney had not been interviewed until Sunday. But the Times added that Salinas had claimed to have dispatched a deputy to the ranch on Saturday and that Zahren disputed that claim. The Times did not account for the discrepancy between this report and Salinas's previous reported claim that an interview took place Saturday night:

While there were reports, some from the sheriff himself, that a deputy had been dispatched to the ranch on Saturday night and been turned away, Mr. Zahren said that some local police officers had heard about the shooting on a scanner when an ambulance was sent to pick up Mr. Whittington. They showed up at the ranch unsolicited. Private guards, not Secret Service agents, Mr. Zahren said, turned the police away because they did not know anything had occurred.

A February 14 Dallas Morning News article reported what was apparently a third version of events offered by Salinas, noting that "Sheriff Salinas said he decided Saturday night not to send anyone to the ranch and added that he was relying on information from others that it was an accident." A February 15 Dallas Morning News article offered a similar account, quoting Zahren as saying, "It was at the sheriff's request that somebody come out the following morning, which we facilitated and passed through to the vice president's office."

Media reports have not explained why Salinas's reported accounts of his department's efforts to interview Cheney have varied so dramatically, nor have they adequately addressed questions raised by the fact that Cheney was apparently not interviewed until 14 hours after the shooting.

On February 13, San Miguel announced that "[t]here was no alcohol, no misconduct on anyone's part." In a February 14 interview with Texas Monthly magazine executive editor Paul Burka, Keith Olbermann -- host of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann -- questioned the basis for this conclusion, given the 14-hour delay in interviewing Cheney:

OLBERMANN: The sheriff's office, though, issued a statement last night, in the conclusion that there -- this was an accident, and also said no alcohol had been involved in it. But how would they know that? The sheriff's office did not interview the vice president for 14 hours after all this happened. And the lower-ranking sheriff's officers who did not know about the scheduling of that interview for Sunday morning had been turned away when they tried to talk to Mr. Cheney on Saturday night.

BURKA: Well, obviously, that question -- that's one of many questions that we don't know the answer to. But, you know, guns and alcohol don't mix. But they have been known to, on hunting trips. Usually the alcohol is after the hunting trip, not before.

A February 14 Associated Press article noted that according to San Miguel, the "investigation had found that alcohol was not a factor in the shooting, but he would not elaborate about how that had been determined."

The February 15 Dallas Morning News article, moreover, quoted a ballistics consultant who criticized local authorities for failing to investigate the scene of the shooting on the night it occurred:

But Ronald R. Scott, a retired Massachusetts state trooper who now consults in ballistics cases, said the investigators erred by not going to the ranch on Saturday night. Investigators probably lost their chance to recreate the scene of the shooting, he said.

"I think that is improper to be quite honest," Scott said. "Even if there was no wrongdoing, it is still improper not to do it."

But other media reports have simply repeated the sheriff's department's conclusions. On the February 14 broadcast of ABC's Nightline, for instance, senior White House correspondent Martha Raddatz reported that Texas authorities said "they were told that there was no alcohol involved" and that "[t]here was no mishandling of any of the equipment or the rifles." Raddatz did not note the delay in interviewing Cheney:

TERRY MORAN (co-anchor): Martha, there's more coming to light, it seems, about the investigation into this shooting. How did Texas authorities handle this incident? And is there any evidence that the vice president got special treatment during this investigation?

RADDATZ: Well, the Texas authorities say they interviewed the vice president. They also say the investigation is over. They actually said they were told that there was no alcohol involved. There was no mishandling of any of the equipment or the rifles or anything like that. But it ended very quickly, Terry. I have to assume that some small town Texas officials, when they're met by Dick Cheney, are a little taken aback. But the truth is, Terry, we don't know the answers to all these things yet.

Similarly, as Lawrence O'Donnell has pointed out on the Huffington Post weblog, a February 14 Los Angeles Times article quoted San Miguel as saying that "[t]here was no alcohol or misconduct." Though the Times noted later in the article that "no one from that agency [the sheriff's office] interviewed Cheney until Sunday morning," it did not question the basis for San Miguel's conclusions.

According to Fox News' Washington managing editor Brit Hume, who interviewed Cheney on February 15, Cheney acknowledged that on the day of the shooting, "he had a beer at lunch, and that had been many hours earlier."

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