Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker (
) is a longtime contributor to TomPaine.com.He is
also the founder of the Real News Project ( www.realnews.org),
a new not-for-profit investigative journalism outlet.
It surely has all the elements of a
thriller: One of the world’s most powerful people, a violent
incident, a rugged Western location, an air of mystery, maybe
a whiff of cover-up.
But even in its most tantalizing form, the superficial saga
of the vice president’s off-duty mishaps pales by comparison
to all we’re not learning about Dick Cheney’s official—and
Most of us are more interested in embarrassing dust-ups
than in the ugly and complex business of carrying out the
people’s will. Hence, we observe a media response which
disproportionately favors the ‘sexier’ if less substantive
We saw it in the alacrity with which all manner of news
organization—local, national, print, electronic—reported what
could be surmised about every aspect of the hunting accident.
In particular, news organizations expressed outrage at the
lack of timely disclosure. Everyone in the country, it seems,
was talking about Dick Cheney’s stonewalling.
Cheney stonewalling? Not sharing vital information?
Operating secretively? Causing unnecessary pain, then walking
away from the scene of the crime? That’s not the story of the
last week; that’s the story of the past five years.
By disposition, the media is better at getting to the
bottom of easily-grasped discrete occurrences than covering
the fundamental failures of institutions and individuals. As a
result, while the best-informed Americans know much about Dick
Cheney’s tenure, the average American probably is much more
conversant with the goings-on at Armstrong Ranch than in the
A recent Associated Press story reported that
Republicans believe the journalistic piling-on over the
hunting accident has made Cheney, if anything, more
sympathetic to many Americans. Moreover, “they are pleasantly
surprised that the intense media coverage of the hunting
accident has shifted attention” from the involvement of
Cheney’s office in leaking the identity of the CIA employee,
Valerie Plame. It’s amazing how candid the GOP can be at
times, without anyone taking them up on their challenges to
So what other matters are deserving of the same passion for
answers the media displayed while chasing down details of the
incident on Armstrong Ranch? Well, there’s the whole question
of Dick Cheney’s precise role in charting the troubling path
on which our country is now headed. Subheadings certainly
include the Plame outing, and the secretive energy task force
Cheney convened. Intriguingly, both of those, and some other
promising avenues of inquiry, all relate to Cheney’s central
role in selling a war under highly misleading circumstances,
and, in the process, doing anything to discredit critics.
So here’s the question: What’s more important—one person
getting shot and surviving, or thousands and thousands dying
unnecessarily in a war whose casus belli was misrepresented to
the American people? On that basis, we should be witnessing a
barrage of investigations into the endless unanswered
questions and confounding scenarios created by the Bush
While members of the White House press corps and other
reporters are still fresh from their recent foray into
investigative journalism, here’s a list of other questions
that merit their attention:
Cheney chose to go on the administration-friendly Fox
News Channel for his first public explanation of the
shooting. In the kind hands of Brit Hume, rather than a
salivating White House press corps, Cheney used the occasion
to score points with true believers with his claim that he
is authorized to declassify (and hence release) classified
information. This of course puts him above everyone else,
and means that, while someone else can go to jail for
releasing classified information—even in the public
interest—Cheney can find a way to justify releasing
sensitive material that serves only political ends.
The exact nature of the relationship between the vice
president's office and The New York Times’ lead author on
stories used to justify the Iraq invasion. Among the scores
of juicy targets: What did Cheney’s former lieutenant,
Scooter Libby, mean when he sent that cryptic note to Judith
Miller in jail, saying that “[L]ike many of your friends and
readers, I would welcome you back….Out West, where you
vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in
clusters, because their roots connect them.” Even a
12-year-old mystery fan knows a poorly cloaked code when she
or he sees one.
What exactly was Dick Cheney’s role in the attempt to
discredit Ambassador Joseph Wilson and what was the precise
objective? No one has explained that in a clear and
Who was behind the forged Italian documents used to
make false claims about Iraq obtaining uranium from
How has Cheney managed to spend virtually his entire
vice presidency promoting viewpoints and claims that are
more extreme and dubious than anything Bush himself puts
out? What is his role in relation to the political
How much power does he really have? What is his ongoing
working relationship with Donald Rumsfeld—his former
mentor—and the neocons at DoD?
Then there’s that secret energy task force. What was
that all about, and how did those 2001 meetings set the
stage for the muscular interventionism in the Middle East
that began in earnest after the attacks on the Twin Towers?
How does it all relate to the billions being made by
government contractors, one of the biggest of which is
Cheney’s former employer, Halliburton?
Even on the Plame affair, which at first glance looks
heavily-reported, there’s less than meets the eye. Too much of
the coverage occurs as a response to official
actions, and includes a great deal of speculation, including
about what special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is up to.
Instead of waiting breathlessly to find out what the
authorities will report, why aren’t journalists doing more
digging themselves? Simple: it’s cheaper and easier and more
cost-effective to crank out a dozen incremental spot-news
stories or reaction pieces than to develop and implement a
sophisticated work of investigative reporting.
Besides, the focus on Cheney’s misfiring distracts
from the really wild shots the Bush administration has taken.
As journalism muser Jay Rosen astutely observed over
at PressThink last week:
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.
Pillar, a walking Downing Street Memo from within the U.S.
intelligence apparatus, notes that: “The administration used
intelligence not to inform decision-making, but to justify a
decision already made. It went to war without requesting—and
evidently without being influenced by—any strategic-level
intelligence assessments on any aspect of Iraq. “ Pillar’s
remarks are one huge story that still could be swept under a
On the Cheney hunting accident, the press has suddenly come
alive. It’s tingling with ambition to get every little detail
about who knew what when, and even about the ins and outs of
bird hunting. We’ll all be experts—on that subject,
In the end, the hunting trip may be part of a larger and
more important story, and could therefore be crucial to
understanding how the vice president thinks and
operates—something about which we really understand very
little. But just as we very rarely find the media
getting beyond the superficial with other stories, the Cheney
shooting coverage is likely to amount to little more than skin