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Cheney Speaks: Less Filling, More Speculation

How do you solve a problem like trying to prove a negative? While it used to be that rumors, innuendo and speculative detective work on news events would sort of roll around the backyard fence or water cooler, grow and morph until it all resembled a kind of conspiracy theory or urban legend – tales largely considered untrue yet still containing some shred of believability. A couple of the lasting examples are the assassination of President Kennedy and the fabled UFO landing in Roswell, New Mexico. Who among us hasn't from time to time wondered about the real truth behind those stories?

In 2006, of course, these stories can pop up in a matter of hours and spread from one end of the Internet to the other almost instantaneously. Speculation surrounding the shooting of a fellow hunter by Vice President Cheney has illustrated this point rather dramatically. The assertion has been raised about whether or not Cheney had been under the influence of alcohol at the time of the shooting, whether that is why it took so long for the story to be told to the media or why Cheney did not meet with local authorities until the next morning.

Well, mystery solved – sort of. Appearing on the Fox News Channel this afternoon, anchor Brit Hume talked about his just-taped interview with Cheney, the first he's given since the shooting. Here's how Hume characterized that issue:

He said he'd had a beer at lunch and that had been many hours earlier. It was dusk, around 5:00 p.m., when this incident happened, and he said that they had lunch out in the field, a barbecue, he had a beer. But he said you don't hunt with people who were drinking, he said no one was drinking. He said they went back to the ranch afterward, took a break after that and went back out about 3:00 and so you're four or five hours distanced from the last alcohol that he consumed and he said nobody was drinking, not he, not anybody else.
Well, that clears that up. Or does it? Do you really believe everyone will just say, one beer? Okay, nothing to see here, move along. That is certainly unlikely to happen, especially given the fact that many outlets have printed statement from Katharine Armstrong, owner of the ranch where the shooting occurred, denying any alcohol use at all. For example, The Washington Post's Jim VandeHei and Sylvia Moreno reported this yesterday:
Cheney, 65, shot Whittington on Saturday afternoon at the exclusive 50,000-acre Armstrong Ranch near Corpus Christi during a hunting party with three other people. The host, Katharine Armstrong, said no one had been drinking before the shooting and all were wearing blaze-orange safety gear.
Knight-Ridder's William Douglas reported this, also yesterday:
The host, Armstrong, a lobbyist and longtime friend of Cheney, said no one had been drinking before the shooting and all were wearing blaze orange safety gear.
And Kathryn Garcia and Jamie Powell, who broke the story Sunday for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported it this way in a follow up on Monday:
An owner of the ranch where Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a hunting companion said Monday "it did not even occur" to her to contact the authorities, and the sheriff didn't investigate the mishap until the next day.

None in the hunting party was drinking alcohol, said the owner, Katharine Armstrong.

"No, zero, zippo and I don't drink at all," she said. "No one was drinking."

Why the differences? Now that the vice president has spoken on this issue, Armstrong will surely be asked about her previous statements, and she should be. But unless we get some new surprising revelation from her or anyone else present at the time, the "a beer" story is likely to stick. Why do I get the feeling though that the questions and speculation will continue to persist? And how can a reporter or news organization prove or disprove that the answers are correct or incorrect? How do you prove a negative, especially one with a new positively-charged element to it?