An Associated Press article failed to inform readers that White House press secretary Scott McClellan, during his noon press briefing on February 14, withheld from reporters the fact that the man Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot had suffered a heart attack earlier that morning. Moreover, the AP article left the false impression that McClellan had indeed informed reporters of this development.
A February 15 article by Associated Press staff writer Tom Raum failed to inform readers that White House press secretary Scott McClellan, during his noon press briefing on February 14, withheld from reporters the fact that the man Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot had suffered a heart attack earlier that morning. Not only did Raum -- and the AP in general -- not report this element of the story, his article left the false impression that McClellan had indeed informed reporters of this development.
The White House was first notified at approximately 7:40 a.m. ET February 14 that the victim of the February 11 hunting accident, 78-year-old Texas lawyer Harry Whittington, had suffered a heart attack. McClellan was reportedly unaware of this development during his morning press briefing. According to an account in the Los Angeles Times, he said he learned of it "shortly before" delivering his noon briefing. Despite the significance of this news, McClellan did not subsequently inform the White House press corps of Whittington's worsened condition, as the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today all reported.
But the three AP articles published since news of the heart attack became public all failed to disclose that McClellan withheld this information. Staff writer Lynn Brezosky's February 14 article ignored this element of the story, despite noting that McClellan had made light of the hunting accident during his morning briefing. Staff writer Nedra Pickler's February 14 article similarly omitted any mention of McClellan's actions.
Moreover, Raum's article provided a version of events that falsely suggested that McClellan, after learning the news of Whittington's heart attack, had, in fact, disclosed this information during the second briefing:
After first defensively fielding questions on why disclosure of the Saturday shooting was delayed until the next day, Press Secretary Scott McClellan joked about the situation with reporters at his morning briefing. Later, he turned somber after doctors in Corpus Christi, Texas, said the Austin lawyer shot by Cheney -- Henry Whittington, 78 -- had suffered a minor heart attack after birdshot from Cheney's blast migrated to his heart.
"If you want to continue to spend time on that, that's fine," McClellan told reporters pressing him on the shooting incident. "We're moving on to the priorities of the American people. That's where our focus is."
By reporting that McClellan "later turned somber" after learning of Whittington's condition and then including one of his remarks from the noon press briefing, Raum left the false impression that the reporters present at that briefing were able to attribute McClellan's change in tone to this new development. By contrast, New York Times staff writers Elisabeth Bumiller and Anne E. Kornblut reported McClellan's "serious" and "impatient" tone during the second briefing, but noted that he was withholding information at the time:
Mr. McClellan joked that the Texas Longhorns, the N.C.A.A. football champions who were at the White House to meet with the president, would be in their team color, orange, and "the orange that they're wearing is not because they're concerned that the vice president will be there."
Continuing the play on orange, the color hunters wear as a safety precaution to avoid being shot, Mr. McClellan held up his own orange and gray tie. "That's why I'm wearing it," he said, to laughter.
But by the time of Mr. McClellan's noon briefing, when the press secretary was aware of Mr. Whittington's downturn but did not disclose it to reporters, his tone was serious, even as he was at times impatient with the persistent questions about the shooting. "If you want to continue to spend time on that, that's fine," Mr. McClellan said. "We're moving on to the priorities of the American people."
Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank also noted McClellan's changed demeanor and explained that the reason behind the shift -- Whittington's heart attack -- was then "unbeknownst to reporters":
Why the quick switch in tone? Unbeknownst to the reporters -- but well beknownst to McClellan -- the White House had been informed before the second briefing that the shooting victim, Harry Whittington, had suffered a heart attack and had undergone a cardiac procedure because a pellet from the vice presidential shotgun was in his heart. Suddenly, the White House had more than an embarrassment on its hands.
During the noon briefing, McClellan even fielded a question from Fox News chief White House correspondent Carl Cameron about the extent of "relief" in the White House regarding Whittington's purported smooth recovery:
CAMERON: Back to the Saturday activities, understanding that the vice president and his entourage's primary concern was Mr. Whittington's health, and remains so, last night the late-night comics went to town; this morning you joked about orange and the Longhorns being here. To what extent is there a certain degree of relief that Mr. Whittington seems to be fine, but a bit of, perhaps, humor involved --
McCLELLAN: Well, I think Mr. Whittington remains in our thoughts and prayers. We all want to make sure that he's okay and that he gets home and he recovers fully. And that's where our focus is and that's where it will continue to be. And I think people have to make their own judgments in terms of how they go about that.
Appearing on the February 14 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Milbank commented that this moment in the briefing "would have been a fine time for Scott to jump in and actually say what he knew."