Jay Rosen of PressThink writes a challenging response to former Reagan and Bush, Sr. Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater’s criticism of how Vice President Cheney’s staff handled news of the hunting accident in Texas. Fitzwater has been quoted, essentially, as describing it all as an “appalling” bungle — the VP’s delay in reporting the news of the shooting, the delegation to the ranch’s owner the job of spokesperson rather than his own staff, the use of a local Corpus Christi newspaper as the sole outlet. To Fitzwater, it appeared as if Cheney’s people foolishly thought “they could keep it a secret.”
Rosen believes this was not a bug, it was a feature — of the Bush Administration’s perceptions of, and approach to, the news media; and an omen that the media’s long-accepted “Fourth Estate” role in government cannot be presumed anymore.
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.)
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.
Most White House reporters proudly regard themselves as gadflies, a thorn in the side of whoever is in power, and a tribune of the public in a democratic society. It was never so apparent as it is now that government bestows that role on the press — and can, with ease, take much of it away. The emperor has, well, some clothes, but not as many layers as before.
If the barrier to entry to publishing your own news is so low that a blogger like me can start writing and getting read, just on my own say-so, it is certainly low enough for the president and vice-president to do essentially the same thing. The press wasn’t mishandled, Rosen is saying. To use the schoolyard expression, they got served.