With Cheney hunting accident, media again ignored pattern of Bush purporting to take high road while surrogates smear targets

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Vice President Dick Cheney's recent hunting accident offered yet another example of an unmistakable pattern with the Bush administration, which few in the media have noted. When faced with potential political damage stemming from its actions or decisions, the Bush White House attacks those fomenting the criticism; Cheney or President Bush then take to the airwaves and appear to temper the debate -- while benefiting from whatever discrediting their surrogates' smears brought on their targets.

Vice President Dick Cheney's recent accidental shooting of a hunting companion offered yet another example of an unmistakable pattern with the Bush administration, which few in the media have noted. When faced with potential political damage stemming from its actions or decisions, the Bush White House attacks those fomenting the criticism. Administration officials and Republican surrogates surface throughout the media to smear or discredit the source of the controversy. Following these efforts, Cheney or President Bush then take to the airwaves and appear to temper the debate. In their statements, they express respect for the subject of the earlier attacks, accept responsibility for the actions being criticized, and assert their support for fair political discourse -- all the while benefiting from whatever discrediting their surrogates' smears brought on their targets.

In their coverage of these comments, news outlets regularly depict Bush and Cheney as having taken the high road. But while framing the president and vice president as above the fray, these outlets often ignore that the administration itself generated, participated in, or at least did nothing to stop the earlier attacks. The Cheney hunting accident, the John Murtha controversy, the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smear campaign -- each of these events offers an example of this pattern and the media's complicity in it.

The Cheney hunting accident

In the days after Cheney accidentally shot his 78-year-old hunting partner on February 11, the vice president made no public statements regarding the incident. He instead agreed that Katharine Armstrong, the owner of the ranch where the shooting took place, would alert the press -- specifically, a local reporter -- of the incident the morning after it occurred. For the next two days, Armstrong was the only person present at the accident to provide details to the media. In her discussions with reporters, however, Armstrong suggested that the victim, Texas lawyer Harry Whittington, had been at fault. In interviews with the Associated Press, The New York Times, and the Houston Chronicle, she repeatedly asserted that he had not followed hunting protocol by failing to make his presence known as he rejoined the hunting group prior to the shooting.

During his February 13 press briefing, White House press secretary Scott McClellan repeated Armstrong's claim that Whittington had not followed proper procedure:

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.

Friends of Cheney, such as former Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-WY), also took to the airwaves and claimed that Whittington was to blame. Moreover, a February 15 New York Daily News article quoted an anonymous "GOP source" saying that, in the days following the incident, Cheney himself confided to friends that Whittington "was in a place he shouldn't be."

On February 15, Cheney spoke publicly about the incident for the first time with Fox News Washington managing editor Brit Hume. During the interview, Cheney stated, "[I]t 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, news outlets nationwide highlighted Cheney's acceptance of responsibility. But as Media Matters for America noted, many did so without reporting that his surrogates -- 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 reported that Cheney "took full responsibility" but did not note that Armstrong and others had initially faulted Whittington (unlike a separate Times article published that day). 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.

The Murtha controversy

Prior to the Cheney hunting incident, the most recent example of this dynamic took place after Rep. John P. Murtha (D-PA), a decorated Vietnam veteran, called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Murtha held a press conference on November 17, 2005, in which he introduced a joint resolution in support of full redeployment. That same day, McClellan attacked the lawmaker during a press briefing, comparing him to filmmaker Michael Moore and equating his proposal with "surrender[ing] to the terrorists":

McCLELLAN: [I]t is baffling that he [Murtha] is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The eve of an historic democratic election in Iraq is not the time to surrender to the terrorists.

Congressional Republicans soon joined the assault on Murtha. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) responded to his proposal by accusing Murtha of "prefer[ring] that the United States surrender to the terrorists who would harm innocent Americans." Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) said on the House floor on November 18 that one of her constituents had asked her "to send Congressman Murtha a message -- that cowards cut and run, Marines never do."

On November 20, Bush addressed the controversy for the first time by calling Murtha "a fine man, a good man":

BUSH: Congressman Murtha is a fine man, a good man, who served our country with honor and distinction as a Marine in Vietnam and as a United States congressman. He is a strong supporter of the United States military. And I know the decision to call for an immediate withdrawal of our troops by Congressman Murtha was done in a careful and thoughtful way.

In their coverage of Bush's conciliatory comments, news outlets framed him as tempering the unruly debate over Murtha's proposal. The following is a sampling of some of the headlines yielded by his statement:

  • The Washington Post: "Bush Tries to Tone Down High-Pitched Debate on Iraq"
  • Associated Press: "Bush lowers the temperature of Iraq war debate, says criticism is not unpatriotic"
  • Chicago Tribune: "Bush cools assault on war critics; President calls for `honest' debate, says foes have right to voice dissent"
  • Newsday: "Bush tempers political war of words over withdrawal from Iraq"
  • The Charlotte Observer: "Bush Adds Temperate Voice To Troop Debate"

In a speech the following day, Cheney followed Bush's lead and described Murtha as "a good man, a Marine, a patriot." The media again responded by characterizing Cheney as having taken the high road.

Most egregious, however, were those outlets that reported on Bush and Cheney's remarks without noting that the White House had days earlier advanced the attacks on Murtha. For example, a November 22, 2005, New York Times article contrasted Murtha's prior criticism of Cheney with the vice president's kind words towards Murtha, but omitted any mention of the administration's attack on the veteran congressman, as Media Matters noted. The Times reported:

"I just came to the conclusion finally that I had to speak out," he [Murtha] told reporters on Monday. "I had to focus this administration on an exit strategy."

"I'm hopeful I don't go too far," he said, adding that he "felt bad" last week after bringing up Vice President Dick Cheney's "five deferments" in the Vietnam era.

Mr. Cheney, in a speech on Monday in Washington in which he defended the administration's handling of the war, called Mr. Murtha "a good man, a marine, a patriot," and said Mr. Murtha was "taking a clear stand in an entirely legitimate discussion."

A November 22 Washington Times article also failed to mention the White House attacks, while reporting that Cheney's description of Murtha "contrasted greatly with Mr. Murtha's attack on the vice president."

Despite Mr. Cheney's objections to a pullout, he went out of his way to praise Mr. Murtha, calling him "a good man, a Marine, a patriot" who is "taking a clear stand in an entirely legitimate discussion."

Such praise contrasted sharply with Mr. Murtha's attack on the vice president last week. The Vietnam veteran mocked Mr. Cheney for obtaining "five deferments."

"I like guys who've never been there that criticize us who've been there," Mr. Murtha said sarcastically.

On the November 21 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Fox News chief Washington correspondent Jim Angle reported that Cheney "made clear today it is wrong to challenge anyone's right to criticize the war in Iraq" and aired a clip of the vice president calling Murtha "a good man, a Marine, a patriot." Angle entirely ignored the administration's prior criticism of Murtha:

ANGLE: Vice President Cheney made clear today it is wrong to challenge anyone's right to criticize the war in Iraq, including Democrat John Murtha, who last week called for a speedy withdrawal from Iraq saying the war cannot be won.

CHENEY (video clip): I disagree with Jack and believe his proposal would not serve the best interest to this nation. But he is a good man, a Marine, a patriot, and he is taking a clear stand in an entirely legitimate discussion.

ANGLE: The vice president said it is legitimate to ask questions about how long the U.S. should stay in Iraq and whether it should have gone there in the first place.

CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield reported on the November 20 edition of CNN Live Sunday that Bush's "remarks contrast sharply with Republican lawmakers. They slammed Murtha for suggesting the withdrawal." But Whitfield made no mention of the fact that the White House had itself "slammed" the lawmaker.

And a November 21 USA Today article simply reported that Bush had responded to the "political furor at home over Iraq" by commending Murtha:

Political furor at home over Iraq followed Bush across Asia. Thursday, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., called for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces. Sunday, Bush called Murtha "a fine man, a good man who served our country with honor and distinction." Murtha's call for troop withdrawals, Bush told reporters in Beijing, "was done in a careful and thoughtful way. I disagree with his position."

The Katrina response

On the morning of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Central Gulf Coast. A large Category 3 hurricane, Katrina caused catastrophic damage along the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, breached the levees protecting New Orleans and flooded 80 percent of city, and ultimately displaced an estimated 1.5 million people. After the storm passed, the Bush administration quickly came under fire for its delayed and disorganized response to this disaster.

In the weeks following Katrina, Bush administration officials and Republican surrogates attempted to deflect the blame for the botched response to state and local authorities. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, for example, repeatedly employed false or misleading claims to shift responsibility away from the federal government:

  • On the September 4 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, Chertoff criticized local officials for choosing the Superdome as a refuge of last resort, ignoring that the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] had known about the plan for years.
  • On September 1, FEMA director Michael Brown appeared on CNN's Paula Zahn Now and claimed that he had only learned that day of the hurricane survivors sheltered at the New Orleans Convention Center. Further, he said that they had gone there "spontaneously." When asked about Brown's dubious comment on the September 4 edition of CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, Chertoff attempted to cast state and local authorities as equally oblivious to the situation at the convention center. He claimed that that the local officials he spoke with on September 1 had said nothing about this development and that he subsequently learned about it through news reports. But news reports appearing as early as August 30 had noted that city officials were considering the convention center as a temporary refuge. Moreover, national news outlets had reported on August 31 that local officials were directing survivors to the site.
  • Chertoff mischaracterized the federal role in response to the hurricane as that of providing support to state and local officials. He said on September 2 that the "federal government is not going to play merely its customary role in giving all necessary support to first responders," but instead would "step up and take a primary role." In fact, the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) December 2004 National Response Plan clearly indicated that in these situations, the federal government is to pre-empt state and local efforts and provide immediate assistance to the affected area.

While Chertoff repeatedly used such claims to hold state and local officials responsible for the inadequate response, other administration officials anonymously shifted the blame. For example, a September 4 Washington Post article reported without challenge the false claim of an unnamed senior Bush administration official that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco "had not declared a state of emergency" by Saturday, August 27. (A subsequent correction to the Post article noted that she had, in fact, declared an emergency on August 26.)

Some high-profile Republicans, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), also took part in the effort. On the September 5 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, Gingrich repeated the false claim that Blanco "failed to call the emergency."

On September 5, several news outlets began reporting that these attempts to blame local and state officials were part of a White House strategy to deflect responsibility away from the White House. The New York Times reported in a September 5 article that the Bush administration "sought to move the blame for the slow response to Louisiana state officials, according to Republicans familiar with the White House plan." Similarly, a September 5 Washington Post article reported the administration's attempt to "undo what many Republicans described as considerable damage to the White House inflicted by Bush's crisis management."

During the following week, this strategy continued to play out in news conferences and throughout the media. Meanwhile, President Bush repeatedly avoided answering questions regarding accountability for the Katrina response. At a September 13 press conference, however, Bush accepted blame for the government's handing of the disaster. He said, "[T]o the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility."

In covering this admission, some news outlets, such as the Associated Press, noted that government officials had previously "sought to fault state and local officials for being unprepared to cope with the disaster."

But numerous others described Bush as departing from the so-called "blame game" over the Katrina response, while failing to note that his administration had played a central role in this dynamic. For example, in a September 14 article, Los Angeles Times staff writer Edwin Chen reported that Bush's comments "signaled a new White House strategy." But instead of contrasting the president's admission with the White House's prior strategy of blaming state and local officials, Chen simply noted that the administration had previously "denigrated most questions about accountability":

The president's comments signaled a new White House strategy as Bush and his top aides continued to work to stem the political damage to his leadership after Hurricane Katrina.

As a part of that effort, the president has scheduled a prime-time address to the nation Thursday from New Orleans.

Bush's statement contrasted with recent White House comments. For days, he and top aides have denigrated most questions about accountability for the hurricane response as part of a partisan "blame game."

By moving toward shouldering some of the blame, Bush appeared to be trying to shift the debate away from finger-pointing to focus on the reconstruction of New Orleans, a Herculean task that, if it goes smoothly, could help rehabilitate his image.

A September 14 Washington Post article, "Bush Takes Responsibility For Failures Of Response," similarly ignored the White House's previous efforts to hold state and local officials responsible.

Further, in their September 14 article headlined "President Says He's Responsible in Storm Lapses," New York Times staff writers Elisabeth Bumiller and Richard W. Stevenson also highlighted Bush's admission of responsibility, but made no mention of the Times' previous reporting on the White House strategy to deflect blame for the response:

President Bush said on Tuesday that he bore responsibility for any failures of the federal government in its response to Hurricane Katrina and suggested that he was unsure whether the country was adequately prepared for another catastrophic storm or terrorist attack.

[...]

Throughout his nearly five years in office, Mr. Bush has resisted publicly acknowledging mistakes or shortcomings, and his willingness in this case to edge up to a buck-stops-here statement, however conditional, was evidence of how shaken his presidency has been by the political fallout from the government's handling of the storm.

It also set the stage for a White House effort to pivot from dealing with urgent rescue and relief efforts to setting out a vision of how the federal government could help rebuild devastated communities and re-establish Mr. Bush's image as a leader.

The Swift Boat smears

In May 2004, the advocacy group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT) launched its smear campaign against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's military service in Vietnam. The group's efforts to question Kerry's war record intensified in August 2004, when they ran a series of controversial television commercials following the Democratic National Convention. At the time, many credible news sources discredited and debunked SBVT's allegations that Kerry had lied about his service in Vietnam. Nonetheless, their spurious claims received widespread airplay and were advanced by countless conservative media figures, as Media Matters exhaustively documented.

In August 2004, as SBVT's smears against Kerry received their most intense media coverage, news outlets uncovered numerous ties between the group and the Republican Party. Moreover, several aides to the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign resigned following revelations that they had worked simultaneously with SBVT:

  • Republican lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg acted as legal counsel to Bush's re-election campaign while at the same time providing legal advice to SBVT. He resigned from the campaign on August 25 after news reports revealed his dual role.
  • An SBVT advertisement featured Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war Ken Cordier criticizing Kerry. At the time, Cordier was a member of the Bush-Cheney '04 National Veterans Steering Committee. He resigned from the campaign shortly after appearing in the ad, which first aired on August 20.

The Bush-Cheney campaign claimed not to have known of either Ginsberg's or Cordier's work with SBVT and consistently denied any coordination or further connection with the group. But at the same time, prominent Republicans, including the president's wife and father, publicly supported the group's criticism of Kerry:

  • First lady Laura Bush said in a Time magazine interview that the SBVT ads were not "unfair."
  • Former President George H.W. Bush said in an interview during CNN's August 30 coverage of the Republican National Convention that he found the group's claims "rather compelling."
  • Former Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) adopted SBVT's false claim that Kerry had received three Purple Hearts for "superficial wounds."

Meanwhile, Bush and Cheney repeatedly asserted their admiration for Kerry's service in Vietnam, while sidestepping requests that they specifically denounce SBVT's efforts. But many of the news outlets that highlighted these purported expressions of respect ignored the clear connections between SBVT and the Bush-Cheney campaign.

Bush first addressed the SBVT controversy at an August 23 press conference. Asked why he had not denounced the group's charges, he responded by calling for an end to all advertisements by such advocacy groups (known as "527s") and commending Kerry for his service:

QUESTION: But why won't you denounce the charges that your supporters are making against Kerry?

BUSH: I'm denouncing all the stuff being on TV of the 527s. That's what I've said. I said this kind of unregulated soft money is wrong for the process. And I asked Senator Kerry to join me in getting rid of all that kind of soft money, not only on TV, but used for other purposes, as well. I, frankly, thought we'd gotten rid of that when I signed the McCain-Feingold bill. I thought we were going to, once and for all, get rid of a system where people could just pour tons of money in and not be held to account for the advertising. And so I'm disappointed with all those kinds of ads.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. This doesn't have anything to do with other 527 ads. You've been accused of mounting a smear campaign. Do you think Senator Kerry lied about his war record?

BUSH: I think Senator Kerry served admirably, and he ought to be -- he ought to be proud of his record. But the question is, who best to lead the country in the war on terror; who can handle the responsibilities of the Commander-in-Chief; who's got a clear vision of the risks that the country faces.

While some news outlets correctly reported that Bush had "stopped short of denouncing" the SBVT's ads against Kerry, numerous others falsely suggested that he had directly criticized the group:

  • Associated Press: "Bush assails anti-Kerry ad"
  • Reuters: "Bush says Kerry ad should stop"

Further, some news outlets highlighted Bush's statement that Kerry "served admirably" and reported the campaign's denial of any involvement with SBVT, but ignored that Cordier had quit Bush's campaign days earlier because of his appearance in one of their ads. For example, an August 24 article by Associated Press special correspondent David Espo ignored Cordier's resignation while misleadingly reporting that Bush had directly criticized the SBVT ads:

President Bush criticized a commercial that accused John Kerry of inflating his own Vietnam War record, more than a week after the ad stopped running, and said broadcast attacks by outside groups have no place in the race for the White House.

[...]

Asked about the issue, Bush said, "I think Senator Kerry served admirably and he ought to be proud of his record. But the question is who is best to lead the country in the war on terror? Who can handle the responsibilities of the commander in chief? Who's got a clear vision of the risks that the country faces?"

Bush criticized the groups' first commercial and all other outside group attack ads - many of which have targeted his own re-election.

On the August 23 edition of CBS Evening News, correspondent Byron Pitts reported that "Bush went on the record in hopes of distancing himself from these attacks ads bashing Senator John Kerry's war record put out by the Republican-backed veterans group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth." But Pitts's report never once mentioned the connections between Bush and the group.

On the August 24 edition of NBC's Today, NBC News political correspondent Norah O'Donnell similarly ignored these connections, while reporting that the president "tried to stay above the fray":

O'DONNELL: The president tried to stay above the fray, refusing to discuss the content or specifically condemn the television ads the Democrats claim are part of a smear campaign. At his Texas ranch, the president called for an end to all attack ads by outside groups.

BUSH [video clip]: I said this kind of unregulated self money is wrong for the process, and I asked the Senator Kerry to join me in getting rid of all that kind of soft money.

O'DONNELL: The president also praised Kerry's military service.

BUSH [video clip]: I think Senator Kerry served admirably, and -- and he -- he ought to be -- he ought to be proud of his record.

By contrast, an August 24 article by Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Scott Shepard reported:

The Bush campaign has insisted it has no ties to the veterans group, although a substantial amount of the group's initial funding came from longtime backers of the president. In addition, a new TV commercial the group plans to launch Tuesday features a veteran, Ken Cordier, who until last week was on a Bush campaign committee.

Several days later, in an interview with The New York Times, Bush again addressed the issue, saying he did not believe that Kerry had lied about his military record. But an August 27 article on the interview by Times staff writers David E. Sanger and Elisabeth Bumiller noted only that the Kerry campaign had claimed the SBVT ads "were being run with the tacit approval of the Bush campaign." Sanger and Bumiller made no mention of the fact that two aides to the Bush campaign had resigned in the previous week due to their connections to the group.

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