Networks Obsess Over Delay in Disclosure of Cheney’s Hunting Accident

On Monday night, both the NBC Nightly News and the CBS Evening News, led with Vice President Cheney’s accidental shooting of a hunting companion, treating it as the most important news of the day as they focused on journalistic upset with how the late Saturday afternoon shooting wasn’t disclosed until noontime Sunday -- and then to a local reporter instead of to a member of the White House press corps. "What took so long?” anchor Brian Williams demanded as he teased the NBC Nightly News from Torino. “Tonight, the White House under fire over the Vice President's hunting accident." Williams soon echoed his earlier demand: "Tonight, what happened and why didn't the public learn about the accident sooner?" NBC reporter David Gregory, a prime antagonist at Monday’s White House press briefing, complained: “The Vice President's office would only confirm the story when asked about it some 18 hours after the incident occurred. At today's often contentious press briefing, the question remained: Why did the Vice President sit on this information?" Gregory ended by asserting: "Another serious question tonight, of course: Did the Vice President follow hunting safety standards?”

Anchor Bob Schieffer applied an historic clarion call as he teased the CBS Evening News: “It was the shot heard around the world, or at least around the country. Vice President Cheney wounds a companion in a hunting accident...” Jim Axelrod marveled, “Think about it: The Vice President of the United States shoots someone, and the general public doesn't find out for 21 hours. Now that's the recipe for an uproar." Axelrod also found it remarkable that for “two and a half hours...no one told the President Mr. Cheney had shot someone.” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos suggested the shooting “could become just a metaphor. You know, you’re already seeing the jokes about competence, the gang who couldn’t shoot straight. It brings up other questions where the White House's credibility has been called into question in the past.” (Transcripts follow.)

Transcripts of the February 13 ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscast coverage, assembled with the help of the MRC’s Brad Wilmouth:

# NBC Nightly News. Brian Williams, in opening teaser:
"What took so long? Tonight, the White House under fire over the Vice President's hunting accident."

NBC’s David Gregory, at Monday’s White House press briefing: "Why is it that it took so long for the President, for you, for anybody else to know that the Vice President accidentally shot somebody?"
Williams: "Tonight, what happened and why didn't the public learn about the accident sooner?"

Williams opened his newscast:
"Good evening. When people first heard about what is again our lead story here tonight, it was greeted with absolute disbelief. Many have called it a plotline right out of Saturday Night Live. The truth is, it's a serious matter. And there's a lot of information we still don't know about what happened on a private Texas ranch on Saturday when Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a member of his hunting party. It's believed to be the first time since Aaron Burr that a sitting Vice President has shot another man. That shooting was intentional, this incident was not. Tonight, the questions mostly have to do with why it took so long for word to get out that a man had been wounded by a shot fired by the Vice President. We begin our coverage here tonight with NBC's David Gregory at the White House. David, good evening."

David Gregory: "Good evening, Brian, and tonight the White House is on the defensive, trying to explain exactly how it is that the Vice President accidentally shot someone, and trying to explain why the Vice President decided to wait so long before he notified anyone. Tonight, Harry Whittington, the 78-year-old lawyer and prominent Republican caught in Mr. Cheney's gunfire, remains in a Texas hospital in stable condition. The accident happened Saturday evening on the 50,000-acre Armstrong Ranch in south Texas, where the Vice President, an avid hunter known to be a good shot, has hunted before. While hunting quail, witnesses said, Mr. Whittington broke from the group to look for a downed bird in tall grass. Katharine Armstrong, the ranch owner, was watching from a nearby vehicle when Whittington rejoined the hunting party."

Katharine Armstrong, ranch owner: "Harry did not tell them that he was going to leave the area where he was looking for the bird and join them in the line. Mr. Whittington was in the line of fire and got peppered by the BB's that are in shotgun shells."

Gregory: "But at the White House today, the focus quickly shifted from what happened to who knew about it and when."

Unidentified male reporter, at the White House press briefing: "You've got to clarify the timeline, Scott. That doesn't make any sense."

Unidentified female reporter: "When did the President know that the Vice President was the shooter? What time?"

Scott McClellan: "Again, there's additional information coming in that night."

Gregory: "The accident occurred at approximately 5:30pm Saturday. That night after 8pm, the President first learned from Deputy Chief-of-Staff Karl Rove that the Vice President was the one to shoot the fellow hunter. Sunday morning around 8am, Mr. Cheney was interviewed by the Kenedy County sheriff's office. At some point, officials say, Mr. Cheney also spoke with Katharine Armstrong, the ranch owner, telling her to publicly disclose what happened."

McClellan: "She saw what occurred, and she called her local paper to provide those facts to the local paper."

Gregory: "The Corpus Christi Caller Times reported Sunday that the Vice President's office would only confirm the story when asked about it some 18 hours after the incident occurred. At today's often contentious press briefing, the question remained: Why did the Vice President sit on this information?"

McClellan: "The very first priority was making sure Mr. Whittington was getting the medical care, and that's where all efforts were focused."

Gregory: "This was a serious accident but quickly became fodder for banner headlines and late-night comments. Here's a sample from the upcoming Tonight Show."

Jay Leno: "I guess the guy's going to be okay, but when the ambulance got there, out of force of habit, they put Cheney on the stretcher. He's going, 'No, the other guy! The other guy!'"

Gregory: "Another serious question tonight, of course: Did the Vice President follow hunting safety standards? Some experts we spoke to today wouldn't judge, not being there. But one expert added the following, saying, 'When you take the gun into your hand, you are responsible for your safety and everyone around you.'"

Brian Williams then introduced excerpts from hostile reporters at Monday’s White House press briefing:
"And as David knows firsthand, today's press briefing at the White House got rough, and reporters took on White House spokesman Scott McClellan. Hear now of today's heated back-and-forth."

Scott McClellan: "This was handled by the Vice President's office. The Vice President thought that Mrs. Armstrong should be the first one to get that information out since she was an eyewitness."

David Gregory: "The Vice President of the United States accidentally shoots a man, and he feels that it's appropriate for a ranch owner who had witnessed this to tell the local Corpus Christi newspaper and not the White House press corps at large or notify the public in a national way?"

McClellan: "Well, I think we all know that once it is made public, then it's going to be news, and all of you are going to be seeking that information. And the Vice President's office was ready to provide additional information."

Jim Axelrod, CBS News: "Is it appropriate for a private citizen to be the person to disseminate the information that the Vice President of the United States has shot someone?"

McClellan: "That's one way to provide information to the public. The Vice President's office worked with her, I should say the Vice President, the Vice President spoke with her directly and agreed that she should make it public, and that they would provide additional information."

Williams, back live: "White House spokesman Scott McClellan from today's very contentious briefing."


# CBS Evening News.

Bob Schieffer, in opening teaser:
"Good evening. I am Bob Schieffer. It was the shot heard around the world, or at least around the country. Vice President Cheney wounds a companion in a hunting accident. It happened Saturday, but the questions were still being asked today from south Texas to the White House. We start there tonight, and then we'll have these stories."

Schieffer led his newscast: "The question was being asked at gas stations, in offices, restaurants, all across America today, and the question was: Did I hear that right? The Vice President shot someone? Well, by now you know the answer, incredibly, is yes. And by every account, it was an accident, and yes, the victim is recovering very well. But that's only part of it. So we'll start at the beginning of this story tonight with Lee Cowan in south Texas."

Lee Cowan: "The man who found himself at the wrong end of the Vice President's 28-gauge shotgun is up and joking with hospital visitors tonight. Doctors say 78-year-old Harold Whittington is making a speedy recovery, but he will likely walk out of the hospital with most of the bird shot the Vice President gave him."

Dr. David Blanchard, Emergency Services Director: "And to go ahead and to take each and every BB or pellet out, sometimes the treatment is worse than the affliction. So many times we'll just leave them be."

Cowan: "The shooting happened late Saturday on a ranch some 90 miles south of Corpus Christi, Texas. Witnesses say Mr. Cheney, an experienced bird hunter this time out for quail, had walked ahead and didn't notice that Whittington had come up behind him in the brush, failing to announce his presence."

Katharine Armstrong, ranch owner: "A bird flushed. The Vice President took aim at the bird and shot, and unfortunately Mr. Whittington was in the line of fire and got peppered pretty well."

Cowan: "Ken Tuggle, an avid sportsman himself, told us as hunting accidents go, the Vice President's is not uncommon."

Ken Tuggle, hunter, as he swung shotgun toward Cowan: "If a bird jumps up between us and I'm excited-"

Cowan: "Yeah."

Cowan: "And from 30 yards away, the distance witnesses say Mr. Cheney was standing from Whittington when the gun went off, it's still a heck of a jolt."

Cowan: "So if you did get hit with this, how do you think, what do you think it would feel like?"

Tuggle: "Burn like heck."

Cowan: "Yeah?"

Cowan: "Here, this is an investigation so routine the local sheriff says he didn't send his deputies to interview the Vice President until the following morning."

Sheriff Ramon Salinas, Kenedy County, Texas Sheriff's Department: "I mean, everybody knew it was an accident, and it's nothing criminal. So that's why he went the next morning."

Cowan: "Of course, there's nothing criminal here, but it sure is embarrassing. Take a look at today's New York Daily News [headline: "Duck! It's Dick"]. And this was just one paper. And if you think that's good, just wait till tonight. The late-night comics are sure to have a field day with this one."

Schieffer set up a second report:
"Once it was learned that Mr. Whittington was going to be okay, everyone lightened up. I asked a man who hunts on that ranch from time to time about all this. And he was fairly serious when he said to me, 'Thank God he didn't kill the bird dog. He's a good one.' With an Internet assist, the jokes went around the world at warp speed, but it also touched off a real row at the White House. Our White House correspondent, Jim Axelrod, was there, and Jim, I know you're new to the beat, but I have to tell you, you may never see another thing like the briefing at the White House today."

Jim Axelrod: "Yeah, I don't even have two weeks in yet, Bob. But think about it: The Vice President of the United States shoots someone, and the general public doesn't find out for 21 hours. Now that's the recipe for an uproar."

[Excerpts from White House press briefing]

Unidentified female reporter: "What time on Sunday morning did you learn that Vice President Dick Cheney was the shooter?"

Scott McClellan: "It was early. I was woken up."

Axelrod: "It fell to White House spokesman Scott McClellan to explain, and he was talking to a group that wasn't exactly buying."

McClellan: "The initial information was coming from his team on the ground with him, and they're just providing an initial report, an accident has taken place. They might not know all the facts at that point, Bill."

Bill Plante, CBS News: "Are you kidding? They're right there. They're out there with him."

McClellan: "The ones who are providing that information may have not been right there physically with him and saw exactly what happened. I don't know."

Axelrod: "And yet clearly McClellan wasn't in charge of PR on this one. The Vice President apparently was."

McClellan: "I'm not going to get into all the discussions that are had, but it was the Vice President's office that took the lead on this."

Axelrod, back live: "The White House says the shooting took place at 5:30pm, and the President didn't know the Vice President was the shooter until 8 because all attention was on Harry Whittington. That's two and a half hours, according to the White House, when no one told the President Mr. Cheney had shot someone. But apparently the decisions affecting who knew what when weren't being made at the White House by the President. They were being made on the ground in Texas by the Vice President. The decision to have the ranch owner call her local paper to let the general public know of the shooting? That was Mr. Cheney's choice as well."

Axelrod, at White House press briefing: "I just want to clarify one thing: Is it appropriate for a private citizen to be the person to disseminate the information that the Vice President of the United States has shot someone?"

McClellan: "That's one way to provide information to the public. The Vice President's office worked with her. I should say the Vice President, the Vice President spoke with her directly and agreed that she should, agreed that she should make it public and that they would provide additional information."

Axelrod, in front of White House: "A rare day here. And by 'rare,' we mean once every couple of centuries. Aaron Burr dueled Alexander Hamilton 201 years ago, shot and killed him. And that's the last time anyone had to provide any particulars about the Vice President shooting someone. Bob?"

Schieffer: "One person we haven't heard from as far as I know is the President. Did he ever weigh in on this, Jim?"

Axelrod: "Well, he had a photo-op after an Oval Office appearance today, and of course reporters shouted questions, Bob. He did not respond. And interestingly enough, the Vice President had been in that meeting but left just prior to the cameras being let in."

# ABC's World News Tonight.
Co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas: "There are new details and some unanswered questions about that strange incident on a South Texas ranch late Saturday. Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a prominent Republican lawyer as they were both hunting for quail. Cheney and the lawyer, Harry Whittington, are experienced hunters. But it appears the actions of both men may have contributed to the accident. ABC's Mike von Fremd joins us from Texas."

After von Fremd's summary of the incident and the condition of the victim, Vargas continued:
"Americans learned the Vice President had shot a man only when a newspaper in Corpus Christi, Texas, posted a story on its Web site, 18 hours later. The White House Press Secretary, Scott McClellan, faced tough questions today about why the White House did not inform the public."

[Exchanges from the White House press briefing]

ABC's Martha Raddatz: "Saturday night, you did not know the Vice President was involved?"

McClellan: "I personally, was informed by the situation room, that there had been a hunting accident. And that it was a member of the Vice President's hunting party."

Unknown female reporter: "What time on Sunday morning did you learn that Vice President Dick Cheney was the shooter?"

McClellan: "It was early. I was woken up."

Same female reporter: "When did the President know that the Vice President was the shooter? What time?"

McClellan: "Again, there's additional information coming in that night. And the details, the details continue to come in, throughout the morning."

NBC's David Gregory: "I mean, the Vice President knew immediately, ‘oh, no. I've shot somebody, accidentally.' And it takes 22 hours for that-"

McClellan: "You know what his first reaction was? His first reaction was go to Mr. Whittington and get his team in there to provide him medical care."

Vargas, back live: "We turn now to our Chief White House correspondent, Washington correspondent, George Stephanopoulos. And George, we just saw several of these very tough questions from White House reporters, pointing out the fact that it wasn't the White House that made this information public. It was the owner of the ranch who made it public, actually, to that Corpus Christi reporter. Does the public have a right to know when the Vice President's involved in an incident like this?"

Stephanopoulos, in DC: "I think they do, Elizabeth. He's the second-most powerful person in the country, number one. Number two, he was involved in an accidental shooting which put someone in the intensive care unit, that was being investigated by local law enforcement. By any definition, that qualifies as news. And when there's news involving the President or the Vice President, it should come from the White House or the Vice President's office."

Vargas: "And will there will be any political ramifications, do you think, from the White House's failure to make public this information, this incident?"

Stephanopoulos: "Well it could become just a metaphor. You know, you're already seeing the jokes about competence, the gang who couldn't shoot straight. It brings up other questions where the White House's credibility has been called into question in the past. On the other hand, Vice President Cheney has never been all that favorable anyway in polls. And he's not running for office again, as he's made very, very clear."

Vargas: "All right, George Stephanopoulos reporting tonight from Washington. Thank you."

Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center