Politics & Policy

The Imperial Press

Sanctimony and frenzy.

Let’s stipulate that hunting accidents are bad things. Let’s further stipulate that Vice President Dick Cheney should have immediately made public his accidental shooting of a friend while quail hunting, rather than waiting roughly 18 hours–the missing 1,080 minutes of the shooting scandal. None of that can account for the raving lunacy that has seized the Washington press corps in its treatment of the incident.

If the press is supposed to be adversarial, does that mean that it has to froth at the mouth? It is often said that President Bush has brought a return of the Imperial Presidency of the Nixon years. But the more enduring creation of Watergate was the Imperial Press, bloated with its own self-importance and fond of the taste of blood after bringing down a president. The qualities attributed to Cheney–arrogant, out of touch, consumed with a dark, paranoiac worldview–all belong to the Imperial Press in its self-regarding glory.

Leave it to the Washington press corps to make a story about what could have been an awful personal tragedy and was still wrenching–with Harry Wittington’s life in jeopardy, and Cheney burdened with the guilt of having shot a friend–all about themselves. Instead of learning of the story Saturday night, they had to wait until Sunday afternoon, and that ignited their rage. Worse, the story broke in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Wrong Times. The Corpus Christi paper doesn’t belong to The Club and doesn’t, like the other Times, employ a host of reporters reflexively hostile to the Bush administration and obsessed with the latest Beltway minutia.

The media need to clue into the fact that no one cares about press management as much as they do. In polls asking what issues matter to it, the public has never said, “Whether David Gregory of NBC News gets his information on his preferred timetable.” Still less does it care if Gregory has a tizzy at the White House briefing, an event considered so momentous by his media brethren during the Cheney brouhaha that it caused an avalanche of coverage.

There was an incoherence in the media’s response to the accident–was it an occasion for jokes scorning Cheney, or a deadly serious business that the vice president’s office had taken too lightly? It could be either, or both, as long as Cheney was excoriated. There clearly was an element of revenge to the coverage. Everyone knows that Cheney doesn’t like the press, and here was an opportunity for the press to demonstrate that the feeling is quite mutual. For all the media’s sanctimony about their commitment to the facts, dark-conspiracy theorizing quickly took hold about the circumstances of the shooting–had Cheney been drunk?

Amidst this unseemly maelstrom, the one who seemed to maintain some equilibrium was Cheney himself, who expressed in a Fox News interview deep-felt regret for what happened on what he called “one of the worst days of my life.” He took all the responsibility for the mishap–so much for the idea that his office was “blaming the victim,” as critics said–noting that he was the one who pulled the trigger and shot his friend. The normal reaction to all of this wouldn’t be the glee that characterized so much of the commentary about the accident, but to feel at least a twinge of sympathy for Cheney. Even Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid, in his initial statement after the shooting, remarked on how accidents sometimes happen. Subsequently, he apparently suppressed his natural human feelings after they had verged dangerously toward sympathy for Cheney, and picked up the media’s outraged story line of a scandalous cover-up.

Cheney’s drubbing will continue apace–the peril of crossing the Imperial Press.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c) 2006 King Features Syndicate

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