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Is The Press Going To Change The Way It Covers Dick Cheney?

Yesterday, the Hotline's Marc Ambinder wrote a blog post suggesting that, in the wake of Vice President Cheney's hunting accident, "major television networks and some print entities are trying to figure out a way to follow the Vice President during his weekend sojourns."

The post did not say that any media outlet had decided to change its strategy for covering Cheney, whose schedule, unlike that of the president, is often kept private, making it difficult for the press to keep tabs on him. But the headline claims that media outlets will "ramp up efforts to track Cheney," and the piece says that among the ideas being discussed by the networks is to establish "an informal pool to stake out the Naval Observatory and to exchange, on a limited basis, editorial information to facilitate that pool."

I spoke to Janet Leissner, the CBS News vice president and Washington bureau chief, about whether CBS News and the rest of the media was considering covering Cheney differently. Leissner, who presently chairs the network pool, told me that there is no serious discussion taking place about forming a pool to stake out the Naval Observatory. She also said that she doesn't believe that the vice president will be covered differently in the future than he was prior to the hunting accident.

"This isn't a question of resources, this is a question of access," she says. "When we have access to public figures, we send reporters and producers and camera crews to cover them. But the vice president was on private property. It doesn't make sense to stand five miles down the road from a ranch where the vice president might be quail hunting with all the resources in the world if you can't get in there."

Both Leissner and Ambinder, who I also spoke to for this post, say it would be impractical to stake out the Naval Observatory for multiple reasons, among them the facility's multiple entrances and the fact that the vice president is often not there. But Ambinder says that there are serious discussions taking place within media organizations about how better to cover Cheney, and maintains that staking out the Naval Observatory is under discussion, at least at some outlets.

Ambinder, who notes that Leissner is "a very well respected news manager," also says he finds it "a little bit depressing" that she believes that Cheney cannot be covered more effectively. "If she says it can't be done, then it probably can't be done. But the vice president is the second most powerful person in the world, and that to me at least warrants the old college try to do more," he says. "This incident does seem to call for a more aggressive approach to reporting on the vice president's activities, particularly as they relate to out of state travel."

"In an idea world," he continues, "the media would know a little bit more about where [Cheney] is. Just to facilitate the media's role as an entity that holds powerful people accountable. It absolutely doesn't have to be intrusive, and hopefully there are ways to do it that are cost effective and respect the security concerns of the vice president and his own very legitimate desire for privacy."

The vice president's office, Leissner points out, rarely grants the press access to Cheney. "If we have the opportunity to go on a trip with the vice president, we go," she says. "Most of the time we don't have that opportunity."

Many in the vice president's office feel Cheney has been treated badly by the press, and are thus not inclined to make it easier for reporters to follow the vice president, particularly when he is hunting, fishing, or otherwise engaged in activities unrelated to his public life. They are also concerned about putting him at risk by letting the press and the public know too much about where he is going to be.

The president, by contrast, is almost always trailed by reporters. His office, unlike Cheney's, is set up to accommodate a pool. But reporters are often not given any real access. Many journalists, for example, have had to kill time down the road from the president's Texas ranch as he goes about his business inside the grounds, an activity that often seems pointless.

Ambinder acknowledges that "it is extremely impractical, in an era when news organizations are cutting budgets," to spend money to have people stand outside of wherever the vice president happens to be and hope news trickles out. One might also wonder where it would and should stop – does the house speaker, for example, who arguably wields more power than the vice president, also merit ratcheted up coverage?

News outlets want to provide the strongest news coverage possible, but they inevitably run up against questions around the appropriate allocation of limited resources. One solution being bandied about, Ambinder says, would be for one network to have a pool crew on standby in Idaho, for instance, when the vice president is spending the weekend in Boise. For that to happen, however, the vice president's office to be more forthcoming about Cheney's schedule, and the media would have to consider covering the vice president in a new way.

"Every side," says Ambinder, "has to give a little."