NBC Today host Katie Couric failed to question Republican strategist Mary Matalin regarding remarks she and other surrogates of Vice President Dick Cheney previously made absolving him of blame in the accidental shooting of his hunting companion, despite Cheney's admission that he was solely to blame for the accident.
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In interviewing Republican political strategist Mary Matalin regarding Vice President Dick Cheney's public relations disclosures following his accidental shooting of a hunting partner in Texas on February 11, NBC Today host Katie Couric failed to question Matalin regarding remarks she and other Cheney surrogates previously made absolving Cheney of blame in the shooting. Couric did not ask Matalin why she told the press on February 12 that Cheney was blameless in the accident. Nor did Couric ask Matalin why, given Cheney's February 15 admission that he was solely to blame for the accident, Cheney allowed his defenders to blame the accident on the victim, Harry Whittington. Couric also uncritically repeated Matalin's assertion that Katharine Armstrong -- the host of the hunting expedition during which the shooting occurred -- disclosed the accident to the press at Cheney's behest. This explanation is contradicted by statements Armstrong reportedly made to both CNN and National Review that she decided to notify the press independently of the vice president.
Couric failed to question Matalin regarding her assertion -- reported in the February 13 Washington Post -- that in the shooting incident, Cheney "was not careless or incautious or violate any of the [rules]. He didn't do anything he wasn't supposed to do." Moreover, Armstrong and White House press secretary Scott McClellan both faulted Whittington instead of Cheney. The New York Times reported February 13 that Armstrong blamed Whittington because he "did not announce" that he had returned to the hunting party after leaving it. From the Times article:
Mr. Whittington, she [Armstrong] said, "did not announce -- which would be protocol -- 'Hey, it's me, I'm coming up,' " she said.
"He didn't do what he was supposed to do," she added, referring to Mr. Whittington. "So when a bird flushed and the vice president swung in to shoot it, Harry was where the bird was."
McClellan referred reporters to Armstrong's statement blaming Whittington in a February 13 White House press briefing, stating: "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."
But in a February 15 interview with Fox News host Brit Hume, Cheney took responsibility for the incident, stating: "It was not Harry's fault. You can't blame anybody else. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend." Although NBC News White House correspondent Kelly O'Donnell had already noted this fact in an earlier Today segment, stating, "The vice president used his TV appearance to try to undo an assertion first made by the first person he authorized to talk about it: witness and ranch owner Katharine Armstrong, who along with the White House suggested Whittington's own actions contributed to the accident," Couric did not ask Matalin why Cheney allowed his defenders to fault Whittington for days without correcting them.
From the February 16 broadcast of NBC's Today:
O'DONNELL: The vice president accepted responsibility for two major aspects of what happened: the hunting accident itself, and decisions made about how to tell the public he had shot a man.
O'DONNELL: The vice president used his TV appearance to try to undo an assertion first made by the first person he authorized to talk about it: witness and ranch owner Katharine Armstrong, who along with the White House suggested Whittington's own actions contributed to the accident.
McCLELLAN [video clip]: The protocol was not followed by Mr. Whittington, when it came to notifying the others that he was there.
O'DONNELL: But Cheney took full blame.
CHENEY [video clip]: It was not Harry's fault. You can't blame anybody else. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend.
Couric also echoed Matalin's assertion that Armstrong contacted the Corpus Christi Caller-Times to notify the paper of the shooting -- at Cheney's behest. The Caller-Times was the first news outlet to report the shooting, prompted by Armstrong's notification.
As Media Matters for America previously noted, National Review White House correspondent Byron York reported February 13 that "Armstrong said she did not coordinate with the vice president's office before calling the Corpus Christi paper." And during the February 13 White House press briefing, CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux asked McClellan to explain the discrepancy between Armstrong's reported statement "that she did not believe the Vice President's Office was aware that she was going to go to the local press" and McClellan's earlier statement -- at the briefing -- that "[t]he vice president spoke with Mrs. Katharine Armstrong, and they agreed that she should make that information [regarding the shooting] public." A later statement by Armstrong to the Associated Press contradicted her earlier reported statements to York and CNN. From a February 15 AP article:
"I said, Mr. Vice President, this is going to be public, and I'm comfortable going to the hometown newspaper," she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "And he said you go ahead and do whatever you are comfortable doing."
But rather than challenging Matalin on her disputed account of how Armstrong decided to notify the press of the accident, Couric echoed Matalin. Matalin then reasserted that Armstrong had contacted the Caller-Times at Cheney's behest. From the interview:
COURIC: I know that the vice president said he felt comfortable with the way the story itself -- or the release of the story -- was handled. But in hindsight, do you believe he should have notified the media in a more timely way?
MATALIN: No. And in fact, if you look at the facts of the case, Katharine Armstrong, who was an eyewitness and is a hunter who was there, was on the phone trying to reach the media as early as 8 Sunday morning. The objective was to get the story out. Not get it out fast, but get it out right. Sometimes accuracy -- and the vice president believes this, and I believe he's correct -- accuracy and completeness should take priority over quickness. We saw in the coverage of Katrina, the first stories out of there were so horrific they impeded the rescue effort.
COURIC: Right. But to get the owner, I guess -- to get the owner of the ranch to call the local paper, does it strike you as odd in any way that, say the vice president's office or the --
MATALIN: She's -- Katie, she's not the owner -- she was not just the owner of the ranch. She was an eyewitness to the event. By the time I spoke with the vice president Sunday morning, I had gotten four different accounts of what happened. So I know from personal experience in dealing with Cheney press that just putting out a statement does not make any story just be humdrum. Any routine -- anything of the vice president's requires complete, fulsome, accurate, conveyance of information. We've seen this repeatedly every time he goes to the hospital for a routine test. So the effort there was to get not just the ranch owner -- she -- Katharine is a hunter, she is an expert on gaming down there in Texas official [sic] in such regard. She did own the ranch, and mostly importantly [sic], she was an eyewitness to the account. The vice president only knew what he did. He saw Harry leave. He didn't see Harry come back. Katharine saw the whole thing. I think that he was correct in trying to put out the most complete and accurate rendition. How he got it out, where she got it out, and our expectation that getting it out and getting it on the wire in the most expeditious way she could accomplish without any staff down there was the right decision.