Why the Cheney shooting is a story
By Tim McCaughan
BEHIND THE SCENES
In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news.
5:50 p.m. Saturday: Shooting occurs
6:50 p.m. Saturday: Secret Service informs local sheriff's deputies
8 p.m. Saturday: Aide tells Bush that Cheney shot Harry Whittington
11 a.m. Sunday: Katharine Armstrong informs Corpus Christi Caller-Times
YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- If the vice president shot a man in the forest, would we hear about it?
Apparently a day later.
Well, it was more like a field than a forest, but you get the point. (Watch why secrecy has been Cheney's modus operandi -- 1:43)
Last Saturday, while out hunting quail, Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot one of his hunting partners. The victim was Harry Whittington, a prominent lawyer and Cheney friend from Austin, Texas.
From a witness account, Whittington had shot a bird, gone to retrieve his kill and had not announced his returning presence to Cheney and others. (Read full story)
Aside from the inevitable conspiracy theories, it seems the facts about the incident are not in dispute. Cheney was hunting. Cheney's friend also was hunting. They carried shotguns. They were shooting at birds. They got temporarily separated. One mistakenly fired on the other while trying to shoot a bird.
This is apparently how many hunting accidents happen -- miscommunication and misdirection.
What seems to have stoked this story into a White House press corps wildfire is how long it took for anyone in the media to find out about the mishap and the way in which it was eventually disseminated.
According to the White House, the president was informed of the accident Saturday night, a couple of hours after it happened. Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, was not informed of the vice president's involvement until around 6 a.m. on Sunday morning.
It wasn't until later on Sunday -- after the owner of the ranch, Katharine Armstrong, who witnessed the shooting and called her local paper -- that the story started to get out.
The Corpus Christi Caller-Times posted the account on its Web site Sunday afternoon. The Associated Press wire service -- to which just about all media subscribe -- picked up the story at about 3 p.m. ET. Not long after, under an avalanche of reporter phone calls, the vice president's office confirmed the reports.
First, why is this a story?
The vice president is the second most important elected figure in the United States, per the Constitution, and any mishap with his involvement should be made public.
Second, why did it take so long to let folks know? That's what's murky here.
There are well-worn systems in place for communicating with the media should something out-of-the-ordinary happen. Mainly, those systems are used for covering President Bush but should work equally well in covering Vice President Cheney.
What should have happened? Well, as an advocate for the American public's right to know I would suggest that on Saturday night when White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove became aware of the vice president's involvement in an incident and informed the president they should also have informed White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan.
At that point McClellan should have alerted the media.
The White House says this did not happen because efforts were focused on getting Whittington appropriate medical attention.
McClellan has indicated he might have handled the disclosure differently if given the chance. But on Tuesday McClellan had to say at a midday press briefing that the White House was "moving on" from this matter, but not before discovering that Whittington that morning had a mild heart attack due to bird shot near his heart. No matter how much the White House may wish it, this story is not going away now.
There are differences in how the president and vice president are allowed to be covered by the media, and that may also be stirring this pot.
When the president travels, there is always a contingent of the media with him -- the "travel pool." This small group of journalists share the information they gather with their colleagues. The travel pool is made up of reporters from the wire services, television representatives (an editorial reporter, cameraman and sound tech), still photographers, a magazine writer and a daily newspaper writer. It's as the editorial reporter that I have many times covered President Bush and President Clinton before him.
This process did not change between Clinton and Bush. The travel pool is with the president in the motorcade and on Air Force One regardless of where in the world he is. We are always nearby. (The news organizations pay the freight, so the cost is a wash for the taxpayer.)
However, we don't always see the president.
On Monday night it was CNN's turn, and we motorcaded with the president to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's home in Washington for a reception.
We boarded the motorcade on the South Lawn driveway, rode to Frist's home in vans mixed in with Secret Service counter-assault vehicles, White House staff vehicles, an ambulance and secure communications vehicles. We sat outside the closed-to-the-press event in vans until, a little less than two hours later, the president returned to the White House.
Nothing interesting happened. But if it had we would have been there. If something had happened somewhere in the world and the president had needed to say something, we were there. It's happened before. Usually, it doesn't happen.
But we are not generally with the vice president. The agreement is that the White House will let us know if something happens. Thus the concerns.
In fact, the vice president's office can be best described as reticent at giving out information about his whereabouts when he's not traveling on a public schedule. If Cheney's giving a speech to which the public and media are invited, then a schedule is released through the White House and we in the media receive it by e-mail.
But, as in the case of the vice president's trip to Texas, when it's an event or visit closed to the public and the media, we often do not know even what state the vice president is in.
More than once I've called the vice president's office to inquire as to his whereabouts after a CNN affiliate in Texas or Montana or some other state has seen a motorcade and heard rumors, and I've been told that the vice president is on a private schedule.
Occasionally, the office might confirm that he's in a certain state but never more than that -- "on a quail hunting trip outside Austin" was never released. Should it be? That's hard to say. My job is to ask the questions and their job to answer them or, in this case, not to.
Cheney says he will not run for another office. Vice president is his last gig before heading into retirement. So he hasn't any real incentive to be any more forthcoming to the press corps than he is required to be.
That is how he operates, relatively unabashedly.
Some would say that is his prerogative. Others would say if he was more forthcoming with the media -- in general and regarding this hunting accident -- there wouldn't be such a controversy now.
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