Media frenzy intensifies over Cheney shooting incident

Right or wrong, the White House press corps has behaved like a dog with a bone over the story of Vice President Cheney's hunting accident.

If Mr. Cheney or his staff had come out in a timely fashion with an explanation of what took place at the Armstrong ranch near Corpus Christi, Texas, last Saturday, everyone could have moved on, say public relations professionals. But that didn't happen. And now that the story has taken a more serious turn - doctors say the quail-hunting companion Cheney accidentally sprayed with birdshot suffered a mild heart attack on Tuesday - the media feeding frenzy has only intensified.

"It's tough, because we're [several] days into this thing, and it just seems to be getting further and further down the road," says Diana Banister, a Republican PR executive in Washington.

Ms. Banister says she's uncomfortable second-guessing the White House. But as a general rule, when there's bad news, "you try to get ahead of the story," she says. "So get the vice president out there just to say what happened."

On Wednesday afternoon, four days after the incident, Cheney did that. In an interview with Brit Hume of Fox News, the vice president took full responsibility for shooting his friend, Texas lawyer Harry Whittington. The comment contrasted with those of Cheney associates, including eyewitnesses of the accident, who said that it was Mr. Whittington's fault for not "announcing himself" as he approached the vice president from behind.

"It's not Harry's fault," Cheney said. "You can't blame anybody else. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend, and that's a moment I will never forget."

The incident was first publicized Sunday morning when one of the witnesses - Katharine Armstrong, whose family owns the ranch where it took place - called a local reporter, with Cheney's permission. After confirming the details with the vice president's office, the paper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Timers, posted a piece on its website. News agencies soon picked up the story.

In the Fox interview, Cheney defended waiting until the next day to report the incident to the press, and to have his hostess, Ms. Armstrong, handle putting out the story.

"I thought that was the right call," Cheney said. Asked if he still thought that, he said, "I still do. I still think that the accuracy was enormously important. I had no press person with me.... I was there on a private weekend with friends on a private ranch."

Previously, the only communication from the vice president had come via his staff in the form of two statements. The second one, released Tuesday, expressed concern for Whittington after news of the heart attack. Defenders of the White House say the national media are overreacting, particularly since the incident involved Cheney, who has a poor public image.

As events have unfolded, they have fit a well-rehearsed story line: that Cheney is secretive and cares little about any perceived public "right to know" about an incident involving a public official. His relations with the news media have been testy at times. One former aide, Ron Christie, however, disagrees that Cheney dislikes journalists.

"That was not the experience that I witnessed - in fact, he seemed to enjoy having a rapport with some members of the press corps," says Mr. Christie.

By Wednesday, tension mounted as Cheney continued to appear to avoid the media, until his Fox interview. He also announced a trip to speak before the Wyoming legislature on Friday. Analysts don't expect a press conference, though, as it could open Cheney to questions about a range of awkward issues, including his involvement in the Valerie Plame-CIA leak case.

Tension between Cheney's office and President Bush's press office is also evident. "You can always look back at these issues and look at how to do a better job," Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday. When Mr. McClellan first learned of the accident early Sunday morning, he reportedly suggested that Cheney or his office get the word out right away.

Whether Cheney has bungled the aftermath of the hunting accident or not, the furor has done a disservice to Bush, as it keeps the White House off-message, analysts say.

"It makes you wonder, when they have so many problems, why they would let this fester the way they have," says Cal Jillson, a political expert at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

All Cheney had to do was come out and "say something human," he says. "You say, 'This is a terrible thing, I'm very sorry that it happened, my heart goes out to Harry and his family.' Then get out of the way and let the story finish itself off."

Instead, Mr. Jillson says, events were spun from the start. Cheney supporters' initial reaction was that Whittington was at fault for not making his presence known as he approached Cheney from behind. "It just feeds the impression that this White House is above taking responsibility and acknowledging mistakes," he says.

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