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Cheney Vs. Journalism

This column was written by John Nichols

In addition to serving as the most powerful vice president in history, Dick Cheney also finds time to be the King of Irony.

In that latter role, Cheney is scheduled to present the Gerald Ford Journalism Awards during a closed-door luncheon on Monday, June 13, at the National Press Club in Washington. The Ford Awards honor what Cheney refers to as "distinguished reporting on the presidency and national defense" -- which, considering the Washington press corps' stenographic coverage of the White House prior to the launch of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, is something of an oxymoron.

But there could be no greater oxymoron than the association of the name "Dick Cheney" with the craft of journalism. No wonder the organizers of the event felt it necessary to include four explanation marks on the notice that: "THIS EVENT IS FOR MEMBERS AND THEIR GUESTS ONLY!!!!"

The crowning irony of Cheney giving out journalism awards is that the vice president hates everything about journalism, unless, of course, it is the journalism of Rupert Murdoch.

Dick Cheney does not have a taste for media that might challenge his preconceived notions. And he has never approved of reporters who believe the White House has a duty to communicate critical information to the American people. Cheney is not joking when he says, "It's easy to complain about the press -- I've been doing it for a good part of my career."

A militant when it comes to White House secrecy, Cheney has a long history of punishing aides who cooperate with reporters -- before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, then-Secretary of Defense Cheney fired Air Force Chief of Staff General Michael J. Dugan for discussing general war planning with the Washington Post.

But, while Cheney can be rough on his subordinates, he is even rougher with the rare journalist who seeks to be anything more than a stenographer for the White House.

Cheney summed up his attitude when, during a campaign stop in Naperville, Illinois, in 2000, non-newspaper reader George W. Bush noted the presence of one of the few reporters he actually knew by name.

"There's Adam Clymer -- major-league asshole -- from the New York Times," grumbled Bush.

"Yeah, big time," said Cheney.

Clymer was not the first journalist to end up on Cheney's "big-time" asshole list. A quarter century before the 2000 incident, when Cheney was serving as the White House chief of staff in Gerald Ford's administration, he organized a West Wing discussion about how to launch a criminal investigation of journalist Seymour Hersh -- and the New York Times, for which Hersh was writing then. In May, 1975, Hersh had written an article exposing the fact that US Navy submarines had intercepted high-level Soviet military communiques by tapping into underwater telecommunications cables. Only after learning that the Soviets were not surprised by the spying -- presumably, they expected it -- did Cheney back off from the discussion of how best to go after one of the nation's most respected investigative journalists. (Cheney's concern for protecting intelligence gathering operations is somewhat episodic.

While he was coordinating the debate about how to go after Hersh in the 1970s, he convened no such discussion in 2003, when concerns were raised about the prospect that Cheney or a member of his staff had "outed" CIA agent Valarie Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joe Wilson, who had exposed the dubious use of intelligence by a White House that was bent on making a "case" for war with Iraq.)

Hersh and Clymer need not feel particularly insulted. Throughout his career, Cheney has generally viewed journalists as the enemy. In April, 2004, shortly after the invasion of 2003, the vice president reacted to reports that US troops had killed three journalists on the same day, after firing into the Iraq office of the al-Jazeera network and the Palestine Hotel, where many international reporters were staying, by saying that this was "the sort of thing that happens in warfare." Cheney declared that "you'd have to be an idiot to believe that (the attacks were intentional)." But, around the world, leaders of journalist organizations, diplomats and prominent political figures expressed precisely that concern.

Cheney's disregard for the fourth estate is not universal, however. He has always had favorite journalists, some of whom are able chroniclers of the conservative cause (such as the Washington Post's Lou Cannon) but most of whom are the stenographers to power who peddle White House talking points as "news."

Cheney divides the journalistic community into two camps: "big-time" assholes and employees of Australian-born media mogul Rupert Murdoch's far-flung empire on the other. Murdoch's ideological organ, the Weekly Standard, may not have many readers outside the narrow circle of neoconservatives who still think the war in Iraq was a good idea. But it enjoys high circulation inside the White House. Editor William Kristol likes to suggest that the journal of uninspired imperialism has "induced" Cheney and others to embrace his publication's faith that America is ideally suited to fill the void left by the decline of British Empire.

Editors always like to imagine influences that may or may not exist. But, in this case, Kristol can point to some might solid evidence of Cheney's devotion to the Standard vision. As he notes, "Dick Cheney does send someone to pick up 30 copies of the magazine every Monday."

Cheney is no elitist when it comes to Murdoch's products, however. A big viewer of the talk-television shows that clog cable systems with nightly conservative diatribes, Cheney delights in the programming on Murdoch's Fox News Channel. Indeed, he's a regular Fox aficionado. Cheney, who in March of 2004 proudly noted that "my last full-blown press conference was when I was Secretary of Defense in April of 1991," may not have much time for most media. But Murdoch's Fox News Channel, the court reporter of the Bush administration, can always count on an interview, a leak or, as happened in April of 2004, an official endorsement from the vice president. "What I do is try to focus on the elements of the press that I think do an effective job and try to be accurate in their portrayal of events," Cheney told Republican activists who were griping about the media. "For example, I end up spending a lot of time watching Fox News, because they're more accurate in my experience, in those events that I'm personally involved in, than many of the other outlets."

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that Cheney is, himself, something of a reporter. George Bush, who has made it clear that he does not read newspapers or pay much attention to broadcast news, says he relies on his aides to brief him on what is going on. And Cheney, in his position as prince regent for the boy president, is the primary briefer. So let's be clear about where the White House gets its "independent confirmation" of the news of the day. Bush does not read newspapers or watch the news, while Cheney reads the Weekly Standard and watches Fox. Come to think of it, maybe Cheney isn't really in charge. Maybe Rupert Murdoch is the boss.

John Nichols is The Nation's Washington correspondent.

By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from The Nation

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