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Cheney Incident Is Latest Frustration for Press

Vice President Dick Cheney arrives at the White House, Feb. 16.
Getty Images
Vice President Dick Cheney arrives at the White House, Feb. 16.

A Texas sheriff says Vice President Dick Cheney won't be charged in the accidental shooting of a hunting companion. But the questions kept rolling in at the White House Thursday, five days after the shooting.

Reporters pressed White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan on why the public disclosure of the accident was delayed, the vice president’s ability to make decisions under duress, even whether he was still credible with the American public.

Journalists responsible for reporting on the Bush administration say there's a good reason for the grilling: The story represents just their latest frustration in covering this unusually influential -- and elusive -- vice president.

"I know to a lot of people watching it, we look like a bunch of yapping dogs," says Ron Hutcheson, the White House correspondent for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain. "But there’s a real fundamental issue about our government -- one of the things that sets us apart from places like China and Russia -- and that is our system is based on openness and accountability."

And Hutcheson says there's not a lot of that when it comes to Dick Cheney -- who quietly has been at the center of many major stories involving this administration.

"We take what we can get," Hutcheson says. "The irony here is we've probably got the most powerful vice president in American history who's probably also the most secretive vice president in American history. So it's really difficult to cover him."

Traditionally, vice presidents are covered by White House beat reporters. A survey of major news organizations found none that had assigned a reporter to cover Cheney and his office full-time -- despite his greater role. Not the big national newspapers, not the cable or broadcast television channels, not, for that matter, NPR. Hutcheson thinks he knows why.

"You'd be like the Maytag repairman on that one," Hutcheson says, laughing. "Sitting around waiting for something to do. They don't share much information about the vice president's schedule, and everybody in the office operates under his rules."

The Cheney rules work like this: He has a constituency of one. It's President Bush. Cheney has renounced any desire to seek the top job – so he doesn't have to glad-hand the media.

Cheney's influence is vast. He led the closed-door White House review of energy policy. And Cheney's inner circle has been pivotal on issues of national security such as the decision to invade Iraq. Yet not a lot is known about what the Vice President says and does in private.

Cheney insists the White House must keep deliberations confidential so presidents can get candid advice.

Reporters have tried without much luck to get information from administration officials who disagree with Cheney. A few who have talked include former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and aides to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. But there aren't many.

At the moment, Cheney is receiving unwanted scrutiny during the investigation into who leaked the identity of an undercover CIA agent. Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis Libby, has been indicted for perjury in the case.

CBS Evening News executive producer Rome Hartman says past vice presidents have lamented they haven't been appreciated enough -- or covered enough. Not this one.

"I think it's fair to say that over the course of the Bush presidency, if Dick Cheney had had his way, there would have been much less attention paid to him than there has been," Hartman says. "That's the exact opposite of what vice presidents historically have had to deal with."

Cheney has spoken publicly just once about the hunting accident -- to Brit Hume of the Fox News Channel on Wednesday. In that interview, Cheney took full responsibility for the shooting. President Bush made his first remarks about the shooting yesterday afternoon. Mr. Bush said Cheney gave a "powerful" explanation in his television interview.

But the way in which the news was initially withheld, then disclosed, still rankles the national media. The owner of the ranch where Cheney was hunting informed the local paper in nearby Corpus Christi on Sunday -- a day after the shooting.

In his interview with Hume, Cheney made clear he didn't have much faith in the national media to get the story right.

"I do think what I've experienced over the years here in Washington," Cheney told Hume, "is as the media outlets have proliferated, speed has become sort of a driving force, lots of times at the expense of accuracy. And I wanted to make sure we got it as accurate as possible."

Cheney then tweaked the media.

"I had a bit of the feeling that the press corps was upset because, to some extent, it was about them," Cheney said. "They didn't like the idea that we called The Corpus Christi Caller-Times instead of The New York Times."

Cheney may be unrepentant on that score. But former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says he should have anticipated this week's media furor and released the information publicly to all media at once.

"It's news if the vice president of the United States accidentally shoots somebody on a hunting trip," Fleischer says. "My sense is that the vice president felt this was part of his private life and therefore he didn’t feel that obligation to tell the White House press corps."

Fleischer adds, "As much as I have differed with the White House press corps on issues from time to time, I think the White House press corps is correct on this one."

But Fleischer says reporters are going overboard because of their history with Cheney.

"There is a sense of frustration with the secretiveness of the White House," Fleischer says.

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David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.