On his Countdown show Wednesday night, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann devoted much of one segment to criticizing Vice President Cheney’s November 21 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a speech in which the Vice President took exception with how the Associated Press characterized his attacks on Democratic Senators who have accused President Bush of lying about pre-war intelligence. Even though Cheney’s original speech on November 16 at the Frontiers of Freedom Institute made clear his comments were directed at "some U.S. Senators," rather than anti-war critics in general, the AP ran the headline, "Cheney says war critics dishonest, reprehensible," which gives the false impression Cheney was calling all opponents of the Iraq War "dishonest" and "reprehensible." Cheney’s November 21 statement that "I do have a quarrel with that headline" so offended Olbermann that he characterized Cheney’s well-founded, and relatively polite, complaint as "vitriol" toward the media. The Countdown host proceeded to distort Cheney’s words himself to prove his contention that the Vice President’s complaints were unfounded.
In Cheney’s November 16 speech, the Vice President’s much-quoted attacks were clearly directed at a select few politicians who have accused the Bush administration of lying about the rationale for the Iraq invasion. As evidenced by a thorough reading of Cheney's speech, the Vice President started by identifying three Senators by name, and later referred to "some U.S. Senators," "a few opportunists," and "certain politicians," in referring to those at whom this special criticism was directed. Cheney even paid homage to the principle that politicians can disagree agreeably, prefacing his comments by saying that in Washington, "you can ordinarily rely on some basic measure of truthfulness and good faith in the conduct of a political debate." More detailed portions of Cheney’s November 16 speech appear farther down before the transcript from Olbermann’s November 23 show.
Olbermann took exception to Cheney’s complaint about the mischaracterization of his words in the media. After a segment on administration plans to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq next year, Olbermann set up the next segment, "The news about the intended, if not precisely planned, troop withdrawals may, in fact, explain the increase in vitriol from the administration towards the media lately. You got to make it look like you are not caving in to your critics, whether the elected ones or the electronic ones. Case in point, the Vice President again this week, while scaling back the administration's attack on the Vietnam vet and Congressman Jack Murtha, he turned on a far easier target. Guess who?" After playing a clip of Cheney’s November 21 criticism of the AP headline, the Countdown host then played a clip from Cheney’s November 16 speech, which Olbermann oddly believed contradicted Cheney’s criticism of the AP headline:
Dick Cheney, dated November 16: "The suggestion that's been made by some U.S Senators, that the President of the United States or any member of this administration purposely misled the American people on pre-war intelligence is one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city."
Olbermann, missing Cheney’s point that he was not attacking war critics in general, but only a select number of Senators, mocked the Vice President: "Not only sounded like the words ‘dishonest’ and ‘reprehensible’ were there, but also with context and everything." The Countdown host then brought aboard MSNBC analyst Craig Crawford, who contended that "to suggest that quoting him accurately in a headline is somehow a bias ... is a little bit of a stretch." Crawford also commented that Cheney’s "old rhetorical tricks ... are beginning to ring hollow."
After failing to discern that the point of Cheney’s comments was not to deny using the words "dishonest" and "reprehensible," but to convey that his comments were specifically directed at "some U.S. Senators," the Countdown host then proceeded to overanalyze a portion of Cheney’s speech in which the Vice President argued that baseless charges that the President lied run the risk of damaging the war effort. Because of Cheney’s choice of words, Olbermann suggested that Cheney’s wording was a "ploy" because Cheney was too timid to make the criticism more directly. As Cheney remarked at one point in his November 21 speech, "One might also argue that untruthful charges against the Commander-in-Chief have an insidious effect on the war effort itself. I’m unwilling to say that only because I know the character of the United States Armed Forces, men and women who are fighting the war on terror in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other fronts."
Olbermann took exception to Cheney’s use of the words "I’m unwilling to say that," and in quoting him, cut out the rest of Cheney’s sentence and argued that by using the words, "I’m unwilling to say that," Cheney was using a "ploy" of distancing himself from the accusation. One could debate about why Cheney chose that specific wording. Perhaps he was just conveying the point that baseless attacks on America's government threaten to demoralize the troops, while at the same time wanting to convey a sort of pep talk to the troops, as in saying "we know you won't let the critics demoralize you." Considering some of the blunt words Cheney had already used in both speeches to attack certain critics, it seems unlikely Cheney was too timid to say what he means. At any rate, however one interprets these words, the fact that Olbermann’s quote of Cheney cut the Vice President off in mid-sentence deprived the viewer of some of the context the viewer might have used to judge what Cheney's words meant.
Today’s examples are not the first time Olbermann has distorted Cheney's words to attack the Vice President. As recounted in the October 7, 2004 CyberAlert, Olbermann argued that Cheney had claimed Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks and used edited clips from Cheney’s appearances on Meet the Press to make it falsely appear that Cheney had, in fact, made such a claim.
Below are more detailed quotes from Cheney's November 16 speech that help convey the point that the Vice President’s criticisms were directed at a select number of politicians, after which is a transcript of relevant portions of Olbermann’s November 23 Countdown show:
Cheney began his November 16 speech on a note of humor by taking a jab at three Democratic Senators who have been prominent in attacking the White House: "I'm sorry we couldn't be joined by Senators Harry Reid, John Kerry, and Jay Rockefeller. They were unable to attend due to a prior lack of commitment. I'll let you think about that one for a minute."
Cheney later remarked, "And the suggestion that’s been made by some U.S. Senators that the President of the United States or any member of this administration purposely misled the American people on pre-war intelligence is one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city."
Discussing American soldiers fighting in Iraq, the Vice President later said that "back home a few opportunists are suggesting they were sent into battle for a lie."
He also declared that, "The President and I cannot prevent certain politicians from losing their memory or their backbone, but we're not going to sit by and let them rewrite history."
Below is a transcript of the relevant portion of Olbermann’s segment with Crawford, in which Cheney’s speech was discussed, from the November 23 Countdown show:
Keith Olbermann: "The news about the intended if not precisely planned troop withdrawals may, in fact, explain the increase in vitriol from the administration towards the media lately. You got to make it look like you are not caving in to your critics, whether the elected ones or the electronic ones. Case in point, the Vice President again this week, while scaling back the administration's attack on the Vietnam vet and Congressman Jack Murtha, he turned on a far easier target. Guess who?"
Dick Cheney, dated November 21: "Within hours of my speech, the report went out on the wires under the headline, quote, 'Cheney says war critics dishonest, reprehensible,' end quote. Now, one thing I've learned in the last five years is that when you're vice president, you're lucky if your speeches get any attention at all. But I do have a quarrel with that headline. And it's important to make this point at the outset. I do not believe it is wrong to criticize the war on terror or any aspect thereof."
Olbermann: "The media misrepresented his stance. Well, he referred to the wires. That would be the Associated Press. He also referred to himself as 'Cheney' (pronounced as chee-nee) there. Leaving aside the fact that the Vice President went on in that same speech to add 'corrupt' and 'shameless' to the adjectives 'dishonest' and 'reprehensible,' here's what he had actually said five days ago which produced that original headline:"
Cheney, dated November 16: "The suggestion that's been made by some U.S Senators, that the President of the United States or any member of this administration purposely misled the American people on prewar intelligence is one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city."
Olbermann: "Not only sounded like the words ‘dishonest’ and ‘reprehensible’ in there, but also with context and everything. Let's bring in MSNBC political analyst and Congressional Quarterly contributing editor Craig Crawford. Good evening, Craig."
Craig Crawford: "Ah, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."
Olbermann: "Exactly. What's different about this one than about any of the other stuff we've seen or you and I have talked about or you have written a book about?"
Crawford: "Yeah, I'm ready to write another chapter just out of this speech almost. It was quite a bell ringer for me. I mean, to suggest that quoting him accurately in a headline is somehow a bias, I suppose he's saying, is a little bit of a stretch, to say the least. I mean, it's a new standard of bias, a malicious direct quotation, I guess."
Olbermann: "When you hear people talk about the mainstream media, folks who watch Fox News think the mainstream media is everybody else but Fox News. People who listen to Air America think the mainstream media is Fox News. But you never hear people talk about the Associated Press. And that's who he's referring to. They're like the electric company. Whatever we might do with the electricity, most of it still comes from them. There's nothing more mainstream in the news world. Is it smart for anybody to attack the Associated Press?"
Crawford: "Well, I do think this one rang so hollow. I think a lot of the old rhetorical tricks that were so evident in this fairly short 19-minute speech are beginning to ring hollow. As far as, I mean, the wires and the Associated Press, in particular, you know, right down the middle when they do analysis. They label it. But, of course, Cheney knows that any attack on the media finds a home because there's a receptive marketplace out there for turning the tables on the press."
Olbermann: "But is the Vice President getting more desperate when he attacks reporters? Because when he said this, 'One might also argue that untruthful charges against the Commander-in-Chief have an insidious effect on the war effort itself. ‘I'm’ unwilling to say that-' I mean, Craig, the old Dick Cheney, he wouldn't have tried the 'I'm not saying this, but some people say' ploy. I mean, wouldn’t he have just had the guts to come out and say, 'You're wrong!'?"
Crawford: "Yeah. Yeah, I think so. I think he is becoming aware of his, of the low approval ratings with the public, and may be a little bit gun shy. But he still got a few zingers in there. I mean, that was quite a, that is a classic old, old trick in politics, Keith, you know, to take a personal slam against somebody and try to make it seem more high-minded because you're quoting someone else and distancing yourself from it. The President actually did that in China in one of his remarks. He said that ‘I heard somebody say that it's unpatriotic to criticize me. I reject that.’ I don't know who he was quoting, who he claims had said that. But that is a classical trick, to get a message out without being the messenger."
Olbermann: "Yeah, it's also a classic media trick. I don't know how many times that I've heard a question asked-"
Crawford: "Very true."
Olbermann: "-exactly that same way."
Crawford: "Yeah, very true."