Cheney and the press

Jay Rosen has the best commentary on how Dick Cheney has handled the press after the shooting accident. As a foil, Jay quotes former White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater: “If [Cheney?s] press secretary had any sense about it at all, she would have gotten the story together and put it out. Calling AP, UPI, and all of the press services. That would have gotten the story out and it would have been the right thing to do, recognizing his responsibility to the people as a nationally elected official, to tell the country what happened.”

Jay replies: “But 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. … 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.”

Note the synecdoche in Fitzwater’s statement: API and UPI stand for the people and the country. Cheney doesn’t accept that, and neither do I–not in the age of blogs and other peer-to-peer media. A few national news organs do not have a right to be informed about anything in particular–especially since the news will get out anyway. However, Jay also argues that the old relationship between the national press corps and the White House served as a check on the latter, and that something must be able to challenge the presidency.

For my part, I have two incompatible reactions to this affair:


1. I wish Americans paid less attention to the private behavior of public officials. Private acts are easier to understand than policy, but they give poor insight into public leadership. (For instance, the accidental shooting makes a nice metaphor for Cheney’s handling of the Iraq war, but anyone could have done the same thing. The connection is symbolic and basically meaningless.) Furthermore, the emphasis on private behavior distracts attention from more serious matters; it adds an unecessary element of randomness to national affairs; and it puts officials in a fishbowl, thereby persuading some good people not to enter public life in the first place.

Therefore, I wish that Bill Clinton had gotten in trouble (with his wife and perhaps with the law) for having extramarital sex with an intern in his own office. But I wish that the press and the public hadn’t cared. I wish that the Lewinsky story had appeared on page A23 and attracted no notice. Likewise, in a country of active, thoughtful, and responsible citizens, no one would care about Cheney’s shooting accident. They’d be too busy thinking about earmarks, FISA, and Iraq.

2. On the other hand, it is obvious that people use the private behavior of politicians as heuristics to assess their public behavior. It’s easier to understand hunting accidents and sexual harrassment than energy policy and deficits. According to Robert Wuthnow, people not only judge politicians and administrations on the basis of their private behavior; they actually draw conclusions about human nature based on what they observe politicians doing.

If this is true (and impossible to change), then public officials are publicly accountable for their private behavior, just because it can affect the administration, the party, the institution, and even the nation that they serve. Then I think the following logic holds: Dick Cheney can affect public trust by how he acts in private. A proportion of the public strongly distrusts him. Therefore, he’d better try to increase their trust by going straight to the national press corps as soon as he has a problem and tearfully confessing his deepest thoughts on evening TV. It isn’t dignified, but it’s the way things work in a celebrity culture with low levels of serious civic engagement.

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4 Responses to Cheney and the press

  1. Are you cribbing from Bill O’Reilly? His question to Kalb, who was defending the “media feeding frenzy,” was “How does this story affect anyone’s life in America?”

    There is more than a touch of irony that this public official wants to claim privacy as he pushes for secret wiretaps of private citizens. Don’t you see any pattern between this botched cover up and Cheney preference for secrecy in policy making?

  2. Peter Levine says:

    I assume that O’Reilly likes Cheney and wants to defend him from criticism of all forms. I hold Cheney responsible for war crimes–just for starters. Nevertheless, I don’t think that any particular news companies represent the public and have a right to be informed. Also, I believe that we pay far too much attention to the private behavior of public officials, with detrimental consequences for democracy. Cheney would be in much more trouble if the press and the public scrutinized his official actions as much as his hunting accidents.

  3. To the claim that you agree with O’Reilly, you plead “different motives.” Fair enough, although you should recognize how your position could become easily misinterpreted. And upholding an alleged war criminal’s right to avoid public scrutiny in a case like this really places a high value on privacy as a matter of principle!

  4. Peter Levine says:

    Of course an alleged war criminal has a right to privacy. The whole point of a right is that it applies to all–and we must safeguard it for all. It is precisely when we loathe a person that we are most likely to forget about rights and general principles, thereby eroding them for everyone. Cheney should be held accountable for his public actions; not nearly enough attention is being paid to what he has done as VP. He should be left alone in his private life, because everyone should.

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