USA Today miscast criticism of Cheney's silence on hunting accident as coming only from Democrats

››› ››› ROB MORLINO

A February 15 USA Today article suggested that criticism of Vice President Dick Cheney's decision to withhold information concerning his accidental shooting of a hunting companion came only from Democrats. But a separate article in the same edition of USA Today noted that the conservative National Review was also critical of Cheney's handling of the shooting, and other newspapers also have quoted conservatives and Republicans criticizing the vice president.

USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page, in a February 15 article, suggested that criticism of Vice President Dick Cheney's decision to withhold information concerning his accidental shooting of a hunting companion, lawyer Harry Whittington, in Texas on February 11 came only from Democrats. In an article that addressed what she said critics called Cheney's "penchant for secrecy," the only Cheney critics Page quoted were two prominent Democrats -- Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). The two supporters Page quoted are Republicans.

Contradicting the misleading suggestion in Page's report, a separate article in the same edition of USA Today noted that the conservative National Review was also critical of Cheney's handling of the shooting. The Los Angeles Times reported on February 15 that former Republican presidential press secretaries Ari Fleischer, who held the position during President Bush's first term, and Marlin Fitzwater, who served under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, also criticized the vice president and his staff for withholding the information. The Times article also quoted Fox News contributor Robert D. Novak calling the White House "secretive." Even current White House press secretary Scott McClellan suggested that the situation could have been handled better.

Giving a more accurate picture than Page, USA Today staff writer David Jackson, in addition to quoting Schumer, reported that "[s]ome conservatives are also pressing Cheney to speak out":

National Review magazine posted an editorial on its website that said, "not talking only feeds speculation and aids the cause of those who want to lampoon and smear him. Let's hear from the vice president."

The Los Angeles Times quoted Fleischer saying, "It would have been better if the vice president and/or his staff had come out last Saturday night or first thing Sunday morning and announced it." Fitzwater told the newspaper that Cheney had "ignored his responsibility to the American people" by not disclosing information about the shooting to the public.

In a separate February 14 story, the Times also quoted Novak, who said, on the February 13 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, "It's news, and it reflects an attitude in this White House of holding back information, of being too clever by half, and being secretive."

Finally, during the February 14 White House press briefing, McClellan said, "There were some very legitimate questions that were asked [during the February 13 press briefing]. As I indicated, I always believe that you can look back and work to do better."

From Page's article in the February 15 edition of USA Today:

Once again, Vice President Cheney is at the center of a White House firestorm. And once again, his critics fault him for a penchant for secrecy.

[...]

"My personal preference is to go along with the press' sense of entitlement because it's easier to go along with it than try to fight it," says Charlie Black, a Republican strategist close to the White House. "But I don't think he thinks that way."

For President Bush, however, the resulting furor -- the subject of 42 of the 60 questions posed at the White House briefing Tuesday -- is an unwelcome interruption at a time his approval rating has slipped to 39% in the latest USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll. It reinforces Democratic charges that the administration is incompetent and secretive.

Press secretary Scott McClellan tried unsuccessfully to move attention to the president's speech today in Dublin, Ohio, on health care. Instead, late-night comics are having a field day while some Democrats draw darker conclusions.

"I think the reason it took the vice president a day to talk about this is part of the secretive nature of this administration," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada told reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. "The American people are not entitled to know what's going on, in their mind-set."

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., sent the vice president a letter -- and immediately e-mailed it to reporters -- that said Cheney was "disturbingly averse to having an open discussion with the American people on matters both large and small."

Others call the controversy a tempest in a teapot. "It's just a simple hunting accident," says Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "It's a striking example of the media obsession with any peccadillo that may come from the White House."

Cheney's attitude toward the news media changed when he served as secretary of Defense in the first Bush administration, according to former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson, an old friend. During his tenure in the U.S. House, Cheney was "open and responsive" to reporters' questions as they campaigned together in the Cowboy State, Simpson said.

From the February 15 edition of the Los Angeles Times:

The White House's delay in releasing information drew public rebukes from Ari Fleischer, Bush's former press secretary, and Marlin Fitzwater, who served in that position for presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

"It would have been better if the vice president and/or his staff had come out last Saturday night or first thing Sunday morning and announced it," Fleischer said Tuesday in an interview with Editor & Publisher, a newspaper trade publication. "It could have and should have been handled differently."

Fitzwater told the magazine that Cheney had "ignored his responsibility to the American people" by failing to disclose the accident.

From the February 14 edition of the Los Angeles Times:

Cheney -- known for having testy relations with the media -- on Monday came under criticism from Democrats and Republicans who said the White House should have disclosed the incident immediately.

"It's news, and it reflects an attitude in this White House of holding back information, of being too clever by half and being secretive," columnist Robert Novak said on Fox News.

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