FOR THE WEEK OF FEB. 20, 2006
Cheney hunting accident leads to flap over information delay
More than a week has passed since Vice President Cheney shot a friend instead of a quail. Assign students to look at national news pages and editorial pages for reports related to that and then discuss whether continuing coverage is appropriate or excessive. Are the writers treating the vice president fairly?
White House reporters speak of representing the public, but the public didn’t select them and doesn’t pay them. Using examples of coverage from the newspaper, ask students to discuss who journalists "represent" and what factors beyond the public’s "right to know" may influence news coverage decisions.
On a local level, as well as in White House coverage, newspapers perform what’s called a "watchdog" function of telling readers about things that public officials, business executives, celebrities and even athletes would like to keep secret. Invite class members to find or recall those types of articles and to consider whether such reports are useful or just prying.
Vice-President Dick Cheney’s latest bird-hunting break from work in Washington, D.C., ended with a scary accident and an extended aftermath that focuses attention on issues of secrecy, accountability, credibility and overall relations between White House officials and the journalists who report on them.
Cheney wounded a fellow hunter with birdshot pellets in a Feb. 11 incident at a Texas ranch that his office disclosed 18 hours later after the hunting party’s host relayed the news to a local newspaper. The vice-president made his first public comments four days after the shooting. Before Cheney volunteered for a TV interview, White House reporters, some media commentators and some bloggers accused the administration of withholding information improperly.
Those criticisms, which grew heated during daily briefings by President Bush’s press secretary, prompted a backlash from some commentators and members of the public against what they saw as a "media feeding frenzy" and sense of entitlement. "The press is largely right on the issue, but it can be right and go too far," commented former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who served the current president from 2001-03.
Administration critics say: Delayed and withheld information create suspicions that can be avoided with timely disclosure and openness. Cheney “made it a much bigger issue than it needed to be,” said a former Republican congressman, Vin Weber. Peggy Noonan, a former Rrepublican presidential speechwriter, wrote in The Wall Street Journal: "A vice president of the United States shot a guy in a hunting accident, and no one on his staff told the press. That's a story."
Media critics say: Journalists are more interested than their readers and viewers in getting immediate details about a hunting accident. Their feelings about past administration actions or treatment of the media escalated this story into a major confrontation. "Is the press really this worked up about being kept out of the shooting loop for 18 hours or are there bigger issues at play?' " wrote prominent blogger Arianna Huffington.
What’s at the core of the clash? Journalists and Cheney apparently differ over how much Americans have “a right to know” – a fuzzy concept that’s not defined in the Constitution or guaranteed by any law when it comes to unofficial actions by public officials. Cheney “ignored his responsibility to the American people,” said Marlin Fitzwater, a former Republican presidential press secretary. A New York Times editorial called the situation “an excellent reminder that this administration never met a fact that it didn’t want to suppress.” Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada also made a broader political point: “This administration is the most secretive administration in modern history.”
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