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February 16, 2006

Dick Cheney Did Not Make a Mistake By Not Telling the Press He Shot a Guy

"The public visibility of the presidency itself is under revision. More of it lies in shadow all the time. Non-communication has become the standard procedure, not a breakdown in practice but the essence of it... With these changes, executive power has grown more illegible under Bush."

Among the angry, amused and jaded reactions to Dick Cheney’s methods for informing the nation about his hunting accident, the views of Marlin Fitzwater were of special interest to me. Fitzwater—former press secretary to both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, a loyal Republican—knows how things used to work.

He was livid. “It is all Cheney,” he told Editor & Publisher. “He is the key that has to start all this.” Fitzwater explained what is supposed to happen. The Vice President’s press secretary acts as a kind of journalist within the Cheney camp.

“What he should have done was call his press secretary and tell her what happened and she then would have gotten a hold of the doctor and asked him what happened. Then interview [ranch owner] Katharine Armstrong to get her side of events and then put out a statement to inform the public.

“They could have done all of that in about two hours on Saturday. It is beyond me why it was not done this way.”

Well, it’s not beyond me. The way I look at it, Cheney took the opportunity to show the White House press corps that it is not the natural conduit to the nation-at-large; and it has no special place in the information chain. Cheney does not grant legitimacy to the large news organizations with brand names who think of themselves as proxies for the public and its right to know. Nor does he think the press should know where he is, what he’s doing, or who he’s doing it with.

Fitzwater said he was “appalled by the whole handling of this,” which is refreshing. But he seems to think the Vice President erred somehow. I’m not sure that’s right. Howard Kurtz said it too. “Seriously: What were they thinking?”

The vice president of the United States shoots a man—accidentally, to be sure, this was no Aaron Burr situation—and White House officials wait a whole day and don’t tell the press? Did they think it wouldn’t get out? No one would care? It would remain secret as a matter of national security?

“This is going to ricochet for days,” Kurtz said on Tuesday. The title of his column that day: Monumental Misfire. I’m not sure that’s right, either.

How does it hurt Bush if for three days this week reporters are pummeling Scott McClellan over the details of when they were informed about Cheney’s hunting accident? That’s three days this week they won’t be pummeling Scott McClellan over the details of this article from Foreign Affairs by Paul R. Pillar, the ex-CIA man who coordinated U.S. intelligence on the Middle East until last year.

Here’s what the article says: “During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq… the Bush administration disregarded the community’s expertise, politicized the intelligence process, and selected unrepresentative raw intelligence to make its public case.” Pillar was there; if anyone would know he would.

The handling of the news that Cheney shot someone is consistent with many things we know about the Vice President— and about the Bush Administration’s policies toward the press. Though I admire his professionalism, I wish Fitzwater were a little less appalled and a little more attuned to the new set of rules put in place by the Bush White House, especially the rules for Dick Cheney.

The public visibility of the presidency itself is under revision, Marvin. More of it lies in shadow all the time. Non-communication has become the standard procedure, not a breakdown in practice but the essence of it. What Dan Froomkin calls the Bush Bubble is designed to keep more of the world out. Cheney himself is almost a shadow figure in the executive branch. His whereabouts are often not known. With these changes, executive power has grown more illegible under Bush the Younger— a sign of the times in Washington.

This week David Sanger of the New York Times described “Mr. Cheney’s habit of living in his own world in the Bush White House — surrounded by his own staff, relying on his own instincts, saying as little as possible.”

And at the same time expanding the reach of his office. “In the past five years, Mr. Cheney has grown accustomed to having a power center of his own, with his own miniature version of a national security council staff,” writes Sanger. “President Bush has allowed Cheney to become perhaps the most powerful vice president in history and has provided him with unparalleled autonomy,” say Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker in the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, the reclamation of powers lost to the executive branch after Vietnam and Watergate goes on; Cheney is known to be the driver. When this project reaches the press it turns into what I have called rollback— “Back ‘em up, starve ‘em down, and drive up their negatives.” Cheney’s methods after the hunting accident were classics in rollback thinking.

Listen to Fitzwater explain what should have happened, pre-rollback:

“If [Cheney’s] press secretary had any sense about it at all, she would have gotten the story together and put it out. Calling AP, UPI, and all of the press services. That would have gotten the story out and it would have been the right thing to do, recognizing his responsibility to the people as a nationally elected official, to tell the country what happened.”

But Cheney figures he told the country “what happened.” What he did not do is tell the national press, which he does not trust to inform the country anyway. Making sense yet? Ranch owner Katharine Armstrong is someone he trusts. He treated the shooting as a private matter between private persons on private land that should be disclosed at the property owner’s discretion to the townsfolk (who understand hunting accidents, and who know the Armstrongs) via their local newspaper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

“I thought that made good sense because you can get as accurate a story as possible from somebody who knew and understood hunting,” he told Britt Hume of Fox News.

From the Caller-Times it got to the Web, then the AP and CNN. And there you are: The American people were informed of the basic facts (though not at the speed journalists want) and Cheney did not have to meet questions from the press, an institution without power or standing in his world. “I thought that was the right call,” Cheney said yesterday on Fox. “I still do.” He also said the furor among reporters is just jealousy at being scooped by the Caller-Times. (See this reply to that.)

Press thinkers, Dick Cheney did not make a mistake. He followed procedure— his procedure. As Bill Plante, White House reporter for CBS News said at Public Eye, “No other vice president in the White Houses I’ve covered has had the ability to write his own rules the way this one has. He operates in his own sphere, with the apparent acceptance of the president.”

Cheney has long held the view that the powers of the presidency were dangerously eroded in the 1970s and 80s. The executive “lost” perogatives it needed to gain back for the global struggle with Islamic terror. “Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam both during the 70’s served, I think, to erode the authority I think the president needs to be effective, especially in the national security area,” he said in December.

Some of that space was lost to the news media, and its demand to be informed about all aspects of the presidency, plus its sense of entitlement to the star interlocutor’s role. Cheney opposes all that, whereas Fitzwater accepted most of it. That’s why Fitz is appalled and Cheney is rather pleased with himself.

The people yelling questions at Scott McClellan in the briefing room, like the reporters in the Washington bureaus who cover the president, are in Cheney’s calculations neither a necessary evil, nor a public good. They are an unnecessary evil and a public bad— ex-influentials who can be disrespected without penalty.

I thought I would be featuring at PressThink this week a long and (I thought) very interesting Q and A with John Harris, the political editor of the Washington Post. It was completed over the weekend, but at the last minute Harris pulled the plug and decided against publishing the interview, which we had worked on for several weeks. (I’d tell you the reason, but I don’t know the reason.)

Unfortunately, I cannot bring you his replies, but I can show you one of the questions I asked Harris. It was my attempt to lay out what has happened to the press under Bush, and Cheney. This, I think, is the proper background for events after Saturday’s shooting…

You wrote a book about Clinton, and you have covered junior Bush, and so you are more than qualified to dispute my thesis in this next question, which is a little long (but then this is PressThink.)

I think the Bush years have been a disaster for the Washington press. In my view, the White House withdrew from a consensus understanding of how the executive branch had to deal with journalists. It correctly guessed that if it changed the game on you, you wouldn’t develop a new game of your own, or be able to react. I believe this strategy is still working, too.

The old understanding, which lasted from Kennedy to Gore, was that the White House has a right to get its message out, and the press has a right to probe and question, and so there will always be tensions in the relationship. There will always be spin. There will always be stonewalling. There will always be attempts to manipulate the press.

Likewise, there will always be pack journalism. The press will always exploit internal conflict and make juicy stories from it. Because of its appetite for anything it regards as the “inside” story, the press will always be vulnerable to manipulation by leak. It will always seize on miscues and call them missteps.

But despite all this, and the struggles and complaints, the parties would end up cooperating most of the time because presidents “need to get their message out” (that was the phrase) and communicate with the country, while journalists need stories, pictures, quotes, drama— news from the power center of the world.

And so a rough balance of power existed during that era; people could even imagine that the press had a semi-permanent or quasi-official “place” in the political order. It was known that White Houses tried to manage the news, which was part of governing. It was also known that there were limits on its ability to do so.

But where, John, is it written that these limits will always be observed? What prevents a new understanding from coming into power in the White House, one that withdraws from the earlier consensus? In fact, there is nothing to prevent it; and I would argue that the Bush forces have done exactly that. They sensed that the old press system was weakened and they changed the game on you. They knew you wouldn’t react because to do so would look “too political.”

Other White Houses had a “line of the day” they wanted to push. None had a spokesman like Scott McClellan who, no matter what the question, will mindlessly repeat the line of the day as a way of showing journalists that they have no rights to an answer. That isn’t “spin,” although it may superficially look like spin. That’s shutting down the podium and emptying out the briefing room without saying you’re doing it.

Armstrong Williams isn’t business-as-usual, it’s changing the game. Not meet the press— be the press! But at least the contract that paid Williams $240,000 was undisclosed. Look at the disclosed picture: The Bush team has openly said they don’t believe in the fourth estate role for the press. They have openly said: big journalism is a special interest. Bush has openly denied that journalists represent Americans’ interest in anything, including the public’s right to know. Bush is openly hostile to questions that aren’t from friendlies.

Dick Cheney will look into the eyes of a journalist on television and deny saying what he’s on tape saying! And when the first tape is played on the air, then the second, it doesn’t prompt any revision from his office. That too suggests a new game, in which flagrant factual contradiction is not a problem, but itself a form of cultural politics. Different game.

On top of that, the Republican party gains political traction and excites its base through the act of discrediting journalists as the liberal media. I don’t recall the Democratic Party developing any coalition like that. The liberal media charge is part of the way the GOP operates today— routinely. On top of that secrecy by the executive branch has reached levels beyond anything you have dealt with in your career.

Aside from the coverage of weapons of mass destruction, which is seen to have failed, my sense is that you and your colleagues think you have handled the challenge of covering this government pretty darn well. (Correct me if I am wrong.) The game hasn’t changed, you contend. We’re still in a recognizable, fourth-estate, meet-the-press, rather than beat-the-press universe. Those—like me—who accuse Bush of taking extraordinary measures to marginalize, discredit, refute (and pollute) the press are said to be exaggerating the cravenness of this Adminstration and ignoring the parallels and precedents in other White Houses, including the Democratic ones.

Actually, I may have understated the magnitude of the change Bush and company have brought to your world, because I didn’t connect the pattern we can find in journalism to the Bush Administration’s treatment of science, its mistreatment of career professionals and other experts in government, and of course its use and misuse of intelligence. All have to be downgraded, distorted, deterred because they’re a drag—also called a check—on executive power and the Bush team’s freedom from fact.

To offer one more example, there’s no precedent that I’m aware of for what’s happened to public information officers under this Bush. These are the government’s own flaks who have to be brought to heel by the political people, who want to erode any trace of professionalism. That’s changing the game; and to say in response, “well, there have always been flaks, Clinton had flaks, Carter had flaks” is just pointless and dumb.

[You’ve said you believe in a] mainstream press that is detached from the fight for power, and I would like to believe in that too. I think it’s noble. I think it’s necessary. How can you have an independent press without that kind of distance? But power—the executive power under Bush—hasn’t “detached” itself from the press, John. Not at all. It is actively trying to weaken journalism, so that it can over-ride what the newspapers say, and act like they don’t exist.

Finally, then, here are my questions for you: Do you ever worry that Bush might have changed the game on you, and put in practice a different set of rules? And if you don’t worry about that, why the hell not? And why shouldn’t you guys—the Post and the press corps at large— change the game on Bush and company?

I found something disingenuous about the performance of the White House press this week. Like when David Gregory of NBC News asked McClellan, “Does the President think it’s appropriate for the Vice President to essentially make decisions at odds with the public disclosure process of this White House?” This was an attempt to exploit the tensions between McClellan’s office and Cheney’s office after McClellan said he would have handled the news differently.

Tensions in the White House staff are fun to cover, but when that story dies down in a day or two journalists will be back where they were— pretending that we’re still in a recognizable universe, where to meet the press is to face the nation, and the White House sooner or later has to disclose.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Hilarious. This post made it into one of Bill O’Reilly’s rants. Apparently, I am just some “far left” blogger to him peddling “an idiot conspiracy theory.” Sad because I feel I have written some nuanced things about O’Reilly.

Brit Hume of Fox also got into the act, paraphrasing this post on his show, Special Report, and telling people I wrote it. Hume also misquoted it by leaving out the word “not” in “… not the natural conduit to the nation-at-large.” Too funny.

AP: Story of Cheney shooting doesn’t remain the same.

Take a look at what Metafilter did with this post. A Presidency in Shadow.

Newspaper journalist, PressThink reader and comment wizard Daniel Conover goes for the fences in Journalism from a software perspective. It’s about how facts once established might stay established, and lots else.

Good Cheney analysis by Garance Franke-Ruta at Tapped:

The vice president has not held a press conference in three-and-a-half years and did not have press staff with him at the Armstrong Ranch; the idea that he would have, on his own, drafted and released a press statement or called a reporter about what happened is preposterous. He is a man who is used to having other people do things for him, and the question on Saturday night was, as he said on Fox, “Well, who is going to do that?”

Thomas Sowell at Real Clear Politics:

NBC White House correspondent David Gregory was shouting at White House press secretary Scott McClellan, as if Mr. Gregory’s Constitutional rights were being violated. It was a classic example of a special interest demanding special privileges — as if they were rights.

There is nothing in the Constitution or the laws that says that the media have a right to be in the White House at all, much less to have press conferences.

This has become a customary courtesy over the years, but courtesy is a two-way street, except for those in the media who act like spoiled brats…

Stephen Sprueill at National Review compares Sowell’s post to this one. “What I didn’t get from reading Jay’s post, however, is how he thinks the press should change…”

Not entirely sure at the moment. I will say this: Mark Glaser and I discuss CBS, Wisconsin Newspaper Let Audience Vote at Mark’s new blog for PBS: Media Shift.

Transcript: Cheney on FOX News. See Howard Kurtz about meeting the press vs. going on Fox. And Ron Brynaert on the quality of Brit Hume’s question-asking.

Cheney on Fox:

I had a bit of the feeling that the press corps was upset because, to some extent, it was about them — they didn’t like the idea that we called the Corpus Christi Caller-Times instead of The New York Times. But it strikes me that the Corpus Christi Caller-Times is just as valid a news outlet as The New York Times is, especially for covering a major story in south Texas.

Key phrase of his… “as valid a news outlet as…”

Rich Lowry follows-up in National Review. The Imperial Press: Sanctimony and frenzy.

…They had to wait until Sunday afternoon, and that ignited their rage. Worse, the story broke in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Wrong Times. The Corpus Christi paper doesn’t belong to The Club and doesn’t, like the other Times, employ a host of reporters reflexively hostile to the Bush administration and obsessed with the latest Beltway minutia.

The media need to clue into the fact that no one cares about press management as much as they do.

Which leads to new frontiers in press management.

“Takes five minutes.” Time’s Mike Allen on how alerting the press works. “A Bush communications official picks up the phone anywhere in the world and says to the White House operator, ‘I need to make a wire call.’ A few minutes later, the operator calls back with Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg reporters on the line, ready to flash the news around the world.”

Kevin Drum, the Political Animal, on Cheney’s “okay, I’ll explain— once!” interview with Brit Hume:

Cheney acknowledged that the White House wanted him to issue a statement Saturday night, but he refused. “That was my call, all the way,” he said. Translation: he doesn’t take guidance from the White House. They take guidance from him.

Hotline, Media To Ramp Up Efforts To Track Cheney. But Brian Montopoli at Public Eye is skeptical.

David Gregory of NBC News at the Daily Nightly:

My view is, as elected officials with unparalleled influence over the lives of the American people, the President and Vice President owe the public information about their activities. I see myself as a proxy for the public that has raised questions about what happened and why the Vice President did not immediately disclose it.

Mark Tapscott in reacting to this post writes: “The MSM is no longer the mainstream or national.” That’s how Cheney thinks too. Tapscott says the national press is more “regional” than it thinks.

Here’s something to chew on, Mark. The Bush team cares less for weakening the national media than it does for weakening the notion of the national fact.

When you really want to know, go Joe. Gandelman, that is. He rounds up opinion on Cheney and whether he damaged himself. Blogometer (here and here) also does range-of-views well.

Paul Janensch has a wonderful list of unanswered questions. Of special note was this:

The first rule of public relations is that when something bad happens, release all relevant facts and do it fast, or it will keep making news. Didn’t his staff know that?

Paul: consider the possibility that public relations in “disclose” mode is not the policy anymore. New rules for a new game.

The Economist said it in March, 2005:

If there is nothing special about the press, then there is nothing special about what it does. News can be anything—including dressed-up government video footage. And anyone can provide it, including the White House, which, through local networks, can become a news distributor in its own right…

Behind all this lies a shift in the balance of power in the news business. Power is moving away from old-fashioned networks and newspapers; it is swinging towards, on the one hand, smaller news providers (in the case of blogs, towards individuals) and, on the other, to the institutions of government, which have got into the business of providing news more or less directly. Eventually, perhaps, the new world of blogs will provide as much public scrutiny as newspapers and broadcasters once did. But for the moment the shifting balance of power is helping the government behemoth.

And there are new rules emerging for this new balance of power. I’ve been trying to trace them in a series of posts over three years. In the Press Room of the White House that is Post Press (Feb. 25, 2005)

From Rollback (PressThink, July 16, 2005): “This White House doesn’t settle for managing the news—what used to be called “feeding the beast”—because it has a larger aim: to roll back the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country, but also less of a wild card in fighting enemies of the state in the permanent war on terror.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at February 16, 2006 10:07 AM