Return to:

A Project of the Institute for America's Future
Return to: Opinions

The Media's Next Quarry

Russ Baker

February 21, 2006

Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker ( ) is a longtime contributor to is also the founder of the Real News Project (, 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 deliberate—transgressions.

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 material.

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 West Wing.

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 dig deeper.

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 administration.

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 compelling way.
  • Who was behind the forged Italian documents used to make false claims about Iraq obtaining uranium from Niger?
  • 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 base?
  • 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 rug.

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, anyway.

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 deep.



Sign up for our free daily dispatch.
Privacy Policy

© 2006 ( A Project of The Institute for America's Future ) | Privacy Policy | Contact Us | About Us |