Media employ verbal gymnastics to avoid saying “Cheney shot hunting partner”

Numerous media outlets and commentators have gone to great lengths to avoid using some version of the simplest construction to describe Vice President Dick Cheney's accidental shooting of a hunting partner, Harry Whittington: Cheney shot Whittington. Instead, the media have come up with alternative formulations that have the effect of distancing Cheney from the incident.

On Saturday, February 11, Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a hunting partner, 78-year-old Texas attorney Harry Whittington. Despite the fairly straightforward nature of what happened, numerous media outlets and commentators have gone to great lengths to avoid using some version of the simplest construction: Cheney shot Whittington (subject -- transitive verb -- direct object). Instead, the media have come up with alternative formulations that have the effect of distancing Cheney from the incident. These include casting Whittington as the subject (“A Texas man who caught a load of Vice President Cheney's birdshot ...”) and making the bird pellet Cheney fired the perpetrator (“It [the birdshot] peppered Whittington in the face, neck, and chest”). Media Matters for America has compiled some examples of these syntactic acrobatics:

Print media

Commentators have found creative ways to describe the accident. In his February 14 syndicated column, L. Brent Bozell III referred to Whittington as the man “sprinkled with birdshot” and “the Cheney friend who received the pellet facial.” Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor Daniel Henninger referred to the incident in a February 17 column as “Dick Cheney catching a hunting buddy with some birdshot.”

Newspapers also employed complicated variations of “Cheney shot Whittington” in their lead sentences. For example, the Houston Chronicle opened its initial February 13 report with a sentence in the passive voice that had Whittington as its subject:

A prominent Austin lawyer was listed as “very stable” at a hospital here today after being accidentally shot and slightly injured by Vice President Dick Cheney during a quail hunt on a South Texas ranch.

In an early version of its February 13 article, USA Today opted to replace the word “shot” with “peppered,” which was used by Katharine Armstrong, owner of the ranch where the incident took place and the designated media contact:

Vice President Cheney accidentally peppered a hunting companion with pellets during a quail hunt on a Texas ranch over the weekend, sending the 78-year-old man to the hospital with injuries to his face and chest.

Later, the article described exactly how the shooting occurred:

Cheney spotted a quail and swung to shoot. His shotgun blast sprayed Whittington, who was knocked to the ground.

Television reporters

Although many anchors for major news programs explained the story as a “shooting,” some on-the-scene television reporters chose to portray the incident with less direct language:

  • From the February 13 edition of ABC's Good Morning America:

CHARLES GIBSON (co-host): But we're gonna start, [co-hosts] Robin [Roberts] and Diane [Sawyer], with this bizarre story of Vice President Cheney shooting a hunting buddy. It happened on Saturday afternoon.


GIBSON: But first, ABC's Mike von Fremd is in Corpus Christi, Texas. He's outside the hospital where the victim is being treated. And Mike, the man's daughter says his -- her father's face looks like he has chicken pox.

MIKE VON FREMD (correspondent): It sure does, I'll get to that, Charlie.


VON FREMD: As you say, his daughter says his face looks like he has chicken pox as he walked directly into Dick Cheney's line of fire.

  • From the February 13 edition of CBS' The Early Show:

JULIE CHEN (co-host): But first we want to get right to our other big story this morning, Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting mishap. The vice president accidentally shot a fellow hunter over the weekend in Texas. CBS News correspondent Kelly Cobiella is live in Corpus Christi with the very latest. Kelly, good morning.


COBIELLA: When he went back to join them, the 78-year-old Texan came from the wrong direction at the wrong time.


COBIELLA: The vice president is a life-long hunter, and the ranch owner says both he and Whittington were wearing orange vests. Getting sprayed with pellet shots, she says, is the bird hunter's occupational hazard.

  • From the February 13 edition of CBS Evening News:

LEE COWAN: The man who found himself at the wrong end of the vice president's 28-gauge shotgun is up and joking with hospital visitors tonight. Doctors say 78-year old Harold Whittington is making a speedy recovery, but he will likely walk out of the hospital with most of the bird shot the vice president gave him.

  • From the February 13 edition of CNN's Paula Zahn Now:

ZAHN (host): And Ed Lavandera is in Corpus Christi, Texas, near the scene of the accident. And he has just filed this report.

ED LAVANDERA: On a 50,000-acre ranch in South Texas, Harry Whittington was enjoying the final hours of a daylong quail hunt with Vice President Dick Cheney. But the last shot of the day didn't bag a prized bird. It peppered Whittington in the face, neck and chest.

  • From the February 13 edition of Fox News' The Big Story with John Gibson:

JOHN GIBSON (host): Chief White House correspondent Carl Cameron, live from the White House. Carl, does Cheney's press office have a good reason or excuse for this delayed story?

CAMERON: They don't consider it a delayed story. They believe that what they did ultimately was due diligence in terms of making sure all the facts were clear and that Mr. Whittington, the guy that got shot, got the necessary medical attention.


CAMERON: So as things stand right now, Mr. Whittington is still in the hospital. He got pretty much peppered, according to Ms. Armstrong, with .28-gauge bird shot, which are tiny, little pellets. He got hit from about 30 yards. And the argument is that he stepped into the line of fire because he didn't announce to his hunting party that he was returning with some game that he picked out of the tall weeds just immediately preceding the shooting.

Television hosts and anchors

Sometimes, the hosts or anchors themselves contorted sentences to distance Cheney from the act of pulling the trigger:

  • From the February 13 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

WOLF BLITZER (host): We begin with that hunting accident involving Vice President Dick Cheney, who wounded a companion while firing birdshot at some quail this weekend in Texas. Harry Whittington, a Texas Republican activist, was hit in the face, neck and chest.

  • From the February 13 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:

SEAN HANNITY (co-host): Texas attorney Harry Whittington is in stable condition tonight after being hit by shotgun pellets fired by Vice President Dick Cheney while the two men were hunting on Saturday.

  • From the February 13 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

BRIT HUME (host): A Texas man who caught a load of Vice President Cheney's birdshot on Saturday is hospitalized in stable condition tonight, but the fact that the White House press corps was not immediately informed of the incident put spokesman Scott McClellan in the line of fire today.

  • From the February 13 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough County:

JOE SCARBOROUGH (host): But, first, John Lennon once sang that happiness is a warm gun, a sentiment shared by millions of Americans across Middle America, if not Mr. Lennon's family or one Harry Whittington, Texas millionaire attorney and hunting partner of Vice President Dick Cheney's.

Whittington was sprayed by a .28 shotgun -- .28-gauge shotgun from the vice president himself this past weekend in an incident that has launched a media feeding frenzy.

  • From the February 14 edition of NBC's Nightly News:

BRIAN WILLIAMS (anchor): A bizarre story took an even more bizarre turn today when a man hospitalized in Texas suffered a mild heart attack because of a birdshot pellet that moved into his heart. The birdshot came from a gun fired by the vice president of the United States. And this story, a scenario beyond the imagination of most of us, which has generated so much talk and so much interest, continued to play out today, and the questions continue for the White House.

Commenting on the use of the word “peppered” by Armstrong to describe the shooting, host Jon Stewart noted on the February 13 edition of Comedy Central's The Daily Show: “Peppering is what you do to a Caesar salad. He shot that dude.”