Media pronounce Cheney shooting story "over"; declare he "stopped the political damage," despite lingering questions, contradictions

››› ››› JOE BROWN

In recent days, media figures pronounced the story surrounding Vice President Dick Cheney's accidental shooting of a hunting partner "over," despite several unanswered questions regarding the incident and contradictory statements offered by Cheney and hunting party host Katharine Armstrong, whom Cheney said he designated to first report the incident.

In recent days, media figures pronounced the story surrounding Vice President Dick Cheney's accidental shooting of a hunting partner "over," despite several unanswered questions (documented by Media Matters for America here, here, and here) regarding the incident and contradictory statements (documented by Media Matters here, here, and here) offered by Cheney and hunting party host Katharine Armstrong, whom Cheney said he designated to first report the incident. These media figures have cited several specific events as marking the end of the story's newsworthiness: Cheney's February 15 interview with Fox News' Brit Hume, in which Cheney recounted the shooting and took responsibility for it, stating: "You can't blame anybody else. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend"; President Bush's February 16 pronouncement that he is "satisfied with the explanation he [Cheney] gave" of the incident; and the Kenedy County, Texas, sheriff's February 16 announcement that no charges will be filed relating to the shooting. Following these events, two Fox News commentators have argued that any further effort by the press to pursue the story can only be motivated by a desire to embarrass the White House. Hume argued that "[t]he controversy over how Vice President Dick Cheney handled disclosure of his hunting accident last weekend seems to have begun to subside following his interview," and Fox News' Carl Cameron stated that "the hunting story seemed to be losing steam with the White House press corps in the wake of the vice president's interview with Fox News." Additionally, ABC News chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos argued that Cheney had "stopped the political damage" by coming forth with his version of events, ignoring the unanswered questions regarding the story and the contradictions between Cheney's and Armstrong's accounts.

On the February 17 edition of Fox News' Fox News Live (noon E.T. hour), host Bill Hemmer interviewed syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin because, he explained, "Now, we are wondering about where the story goes next, and whether there's another branch on this tree or not. Syndicated columnist and Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin can answer that." The interview featured an onscreen graphic that read: "The Cheney Incident: Time to Let It Go?"

When Hemmer asked Malkin if "the media overdid it" in pursuing the Cheney shooting story, Malkin replied that there was "[n]o question about it," adding that "the White House press corps, for the most part, was trying to embarrass the White House over this." When Hemmer asked Malkin if Cheney was likely to mention the shooting incident in a press conference scheduled for later that afternoon, Malkin replied: "Yes, and I hope he does. ... And I think with the [hunting partner Harry] Whittington press conference coming up shortly here on Fox News that, hopefully, this will cause a ceasefire once and for all." She added: "The mania -- and the circus journalism -- is just absolutely out of control."

From Malkin's interview on the February 17 edition of Fox News' Fox News Live:

HEMMER: Tough week for Scott McClellan at the podium there, the White House spokesman earning his paycheck on Monday and again on Tuesday, and actually on Wednesday and Thursday as well. The media turning that press conference into a bit of a feeding frenzy over this hunting incident here. Now, we are wondering about where the story goes next, and whether there's another branch on this tree or not. Syndicated columnist and Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin can answer that. Michelle, good afternoon to you. How are you doing?

MALKIN: Good. How are you, Bill?

HEMMER: I'm doing fine. You think the media overdid it this week. How so?

MALKIN: No question about it, Bill. Look, this wasn't an apocalypse. It was a hunting accident. And there was no Nixonian-proportioned cover-up here. It was a minor press bungle. Could the vice president's office have handled it better? Yes. But I think that the White House press corps, for the most part, was trying to embarrass the White House over this. And in the end, it ended up only embarrassing itself.

[...]

HEMMER: One thing we're hearing, Michelle, is that the vice president may make mention of this at 1:00, in the 1:00 hour in that speech, do you anticipate that?

MALKIN: Yes, and I hope he does. I think the vice president's office understood that it should have handled things better. And I think with the Whittington press conference coming up shortly here on Fox News that, hopefully, this will cause a ceasefire once and for all.

[crosstalk]

MALKIN: The mania -- and the circus journalism -- is just absolutely out of control.

Similarly, on the February 16 edition of Fox News Live, syndicated columnist and Fox News contributor Robert D. Novak stated that he doesn't "think you can keep beating this totally dead horse over and over again. This story is really over, and I think what's left is the Cheney-bashing by people who don't like him."

From Novak's interview on Fox News Live (10 a.m. ET hour), hosted by John Scott:

SCOTT: Bob -- I don't know, I guess I have something of a public position. If I had done exactly the same thing, I wouldn't want the whole world knowing about it. If you're the vice president -- I mean, has he come to learn or does he know that this kind of thing ought to be covered, deserves to be covered?

NOVAK: Look, [former Sen.] Al Simpson [R-WY], former -- his buddy from Wyoming, former Senator, said it the other day very candidly that Dick Cheney doesn't like the press anymore -- used to like the press, but he detests them. And he is not going to make anything easier for them. I don't think there's any question, of all the Republicans I have talked to, several people in the administration, they said that immediately the information should have been given to the media and that the vice president didn't want to do it. And he -- as Marvin [Kalb, Fox News contributor] says, he is autonomous, but for goodness' sakes, I think -- I don't think you can keep beating this totally dead horse over and over again. This story is really over, and I think what's left is the Cheney-bashing by people who don't like him.

Additionally, on the February 16 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Hume asserted: "The controversy over how Vice President Dick Cheney handled disclosure of his hunting accident last weekend seems to have begun to subside following his interview yesterday in which he took full responsibility for wounding his fellow hunter." During a report on the hunting story, Cameron stated: "After three days of feisty [White House] briefings, the hunting story seemed to be losing steam with the White House press corps in the wake of the vice president's interview with Fox News." During the program's "All-Star" panel discussion, Hume asked NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson if the "hunting accident controversy" was "largely over," to which she replied: "I think it's probably just about run its course," adding, "I don't think this does lasting damage to the White House." When Hume asked Liasson, "Has the Republican heartburn subsided?," Liasson responded: "Yes, by now, probably. It's subsiding."

From the February 16 edition of Special Report with Brit Hume:

HUME: The controversy over how Vice President Dick Cheney handled disclosure of his hunting accident last weekend seems to have begun to subside following his interview yesterday in which he took full responsibility for wounding his fellow hunter. But there was still some noise on the issue today. And as Fox News Chief White House Correspondent Carl Cameron reports, this afternoon President Bush broke his public silence on the issue.

[...]

CAMERON: After three days of feisty briefings, the hunting story seemed to be losing steam with the White House press corps in the wake of the vice president's interview with Fox News, though there were attempts to link the accident to Iraq.

[...]

HUME: Mara, your view of this hunting accident controversy. Is it in your judgment largely over?

LIASSON: I think it's probably just about run its course. For those -- for opponents of the administration, this is a metaphor for Cheney's disproportionate power, the fact that he kind of runs an entity unto himself and isn't subject to the rules of the White House and doesn't consult with anybody and decides for himself and, in this case he was seeded a tremendous amount of power, as he has been all along. So that becomes a metaphor. I don't think this does lasting damage to the White House. I think the way it was handled, to Cheney, it doesn't matter. Cheney is not going to run for anything. He doesn't really care about his favorability ratings. I do think, though, that it made a lot of Republicans worried and nervous about how it was handled. Not about the incident itself, but just it didn't seem it was handled very professionally. It caused a lot of unnecessary --

HUME: Has the Republican heartburn subsided, in your judgment?

LIASSON: Yes, by now, probably. It's subsiding.

MSNBC conservative commentators Joe Scarborough and Tucker Carlson have also pronounced the shooting story dead. On the February 16 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country, which featured Steve Rendall, a senior analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Scarborough announced: "It certainly sounds to me, if you listen to the news coming out of Texas, that this story is over":

SCARBOROUGH: Let me start with you, Steve. It certainly sounds to me, if you listen to the news coming out of Texas, that this story is over. Do you agree with that?

RENDALL: Well, I'm not sure it's over. I think the thing that you have to take into account here is, you have the most secretive official in what might be the most secretive administration ever, who appoints a private citizen, Katharine Armstrong, to take care of the press business of the White House.

And on the February 16 edition of MSNBC's The Situation with Tucker Carlson, Carlson asserted that given Bush's statement that he is "satisfied" with Cheney's explanation of the shooting, and the Kenedy County sheriff's decision not to file charges against Cheney, "[t]he three-day story is over":

BUSH [clip]: And so, I thought his explanation yesterday was a very strong and powerful explanation, and I'm satisfied with the explanation he gave.

CARLSON: President Bush, as you just heard, pronounced himself one satisfied customer today. The local sheriff's department is satisfied with Dick Cheney's story, too. Law enforcement officials in Texas closed the hunting accident case today without filing any charges against the V.P. The three-day story is over.

Further, on the February 15 edition of ABC's World News Tonight, Stephanopoulos stated that Cheney "stopped the political damage" by "giv[ing] out his whole side of the story," an assertion that can only prove true if journalists like Stephanopoulos stop pursuing the unanswered questions concerning the story, and if they fail to scrutinize the contradictions between Cheney's statements and those of Armstrong. World News Tonight anchor Elizabeth Vargas noted one of these contradictions immediately before Stephanopoulos stated that Cheney had "stopped the political damage":

VARGAS: But there is still a contradiction, isn't there? I mean, he says it was the right decision to let Katharine Armstrong give that version of events, while saying it was his responsibility, and her version of events placed responsibility squarely on -- squarely on Mr. Whittington's shoulders.

STEPHANAPOLOUS: It did, and you know, the fact that he thought she was going to be the more credible witness is undercut right now. But now, he's given out his whole side of the story. And as long as his story is not contradicted by Mr. Whittington or the sheriff's report, and as long as Mr. Whittington doesn't take a turn for the worse, I think he's stopped the political damage. And most Republicans and Democrats I talked to today agree.

As Media Matters noted, some of Armstrong's statements regarding the consumption of alcohol by the hunting party and Whittington's ability to speak after the February 11 incident have been contradicted by Cheney. Additionally, other statements by Armstrong raise questions about whether she saw the actual shooting, as she claims. Salon.com writer Tim Grieve outlines several of the unanswered questions regarding the shooting incident and the subsequent investigation here (subscription required).

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