Nets Devote as Much Time to Whining About Being Snubbed as to Victim’s Condition

The three broadcast network evening newscasts all led Tuesday night with the minor heart attack suffered by the victim of Vice President Cheney’s hunting accident, but all gave equal time to, for the second night in a row, obsessing over the snubbing of the White House press corps -- this time how Scott McClellan didn’t inform them of Harry Whittington’s complication. ABC co-anchor Charles Gibson teased: “The man Vice President Cheney accidentally shot, today suffers a minor heart attack as the White House faces new questions about its silence.” NBC’s Brian Williams teased from Torino: “There are more questions tonight about who knew what and when." Elizabeth Vargas, ABC’s other anchor complained about how “today the White House, once again, chose not to tell the public about a major development in this story.” ABC reporter Martha Raddatz recited “stinging” criticism of the White House from former GOP press secretaries before she concluded by fretting about how Cheney’s “staff has still not answered detailed questions about this incident...And it's not clear they ever will."

CBS anchor Bob Schieffer asserted, “Then there's the other question hanging over this: Why has the Vice President remained silent?” Gloria Borger chipped in with how someone “close to this administration” just happened to see the situation and administration incompetence the same way as the White House press corps: “‘It's no longer about indulging Dick Cheney's views of press management.' Instead, he says, ‘it's now about Iraq and Katrina and a range of other issues that play into the public's views of this administration's arrogance.'” Schieffer asked that, since “nobody's going to ask the Vice President to quit,...do you suppose that we'll see the role of the Vice President changing?...Maybe back to the funeral beat is what Vice Presidents used to do before this Vice President came along." Back to NBC, David Gregory, the most prolific antagonist to McClellan at the Monday and Tuesday press briefings, insisted that “there are still unanswered questions surrounding Saturday's shooting.” He proposed two: “Why did the local sheriff in Kenedy County, Texas wait 14 hours to interview the Vice President?” And: “Did the Vice President follow hunting safety guidelines?” (Transcripts follow.)

On Monday night, the CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News led with the hunting accident while ABC’s World News Tonight started with the impending House committee report on Katrina. Following the Tuesday night decision by all three networks to lead with Katrina, of the eight broadcast network evening newscasts from Sunday through Tuesday (golf bumped CBS in the East on Sunday), 7 of the 8 (88 percent) have led with the shooting incident and/or how information was disseminated. For a rundown of Monday night coverage, see this NewsBusters item.

Transcripts of the portions of the February 14 ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts which focused on whining from the White House press corps:

# ABC’s World News Tonight. Co-anchor Charles Gibson teased:
“The man Vice President Cheney accidentally shot, today suffers a minor heart attack as the White House faces new questions about its silence.”

Following the lead story, from Mike von Fremd, on the condition of 78-year-old Harry Whittington, co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas turned to Tim Johnson:
“Our medical editor, Dr. Tim Johnson, joins us now. First of all, how serious was this heart attack? How serious is his condition?”

Johnson: “Well, the heart attack, so-called, was actually caused by the damage caused by the buck shot. Not by the blockage of the coronary arteries. They were clean on tests today. That's good news. But until we know exactly where this buck shot is, and what it might lead to, I think we have to say that the possibilities are everywhere from totally benign, to unlikely, but possibly fatal.”

After a bit more q&a with Johnson, Vargas went to Martha Raddatz at the White House:
“Now to the political diagnosis from this story. Today the White House, once again, chose not to tell the public about a major development in this story. And once again, it was up to a spokesman to explain why. ABC's Chief White House correspondent Martha Raddatz, joins us. And Martha, exactly when did the White House learn of Mr. Whittington's heart attack?”

Martha Raddatz: “Well, the Vice President was told about it this morning, Elizabeth. But neither he nor the White House spokesman let on. Scott McClellan found out about Whittington's heart attack just before the 12:30 briefing. But he said nothing to the press. In fact, even though he knew Whittington's health had taken a serious turn, McClellan went out of his way to treat the hunting accident as yesterday's news.”

Scott McClellan at Tuesday’s press briefing: “I think we went through it thoroughly yesterday. It is what it is. I think it's time to move on for the American people.”

Raddatz to McClellan at press briefing: “I know we went through it. But we didn't get that answer. Why didn't you know?”

McClellan: “Martha, I think if you have additional questions relating to this matter, that you should direct them to the Vice President's office. I've responded to you pretty fully. In terms of my view, I’ve responded to those questions. I did so yesterday.”

Raddatz: “After the briefing, McClellan told ABC News, that [text on screen] he didn't feel it was ‘appropriate’ to be the first to comment on Whittington's medical condition. But this came after days of harsh questioning, as to why the White House waited close to 20 hours before letting the American people know -- and only through a member of the hunting party -- that the Vice President had shot Mr. Whittington. Today, a stinging criticism from former White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater. Fitzwater told Editor and Publisher, [text on screen] he was quote, ‘appalled by the whole handling of this.’ And President Bush's first Press Secretary, Ari Fleisher told the magazine, ‘it could have and should have been handled differently.’ As for the Vice President, he was on Capitol Hill today. He attended an intelligence briefing and left by a side door. Later this afternoon, the Vice President's office did issue a statement saying [text on screen]: ‘At about 1:30pm ET, the Vice President called Mr. Whittington and spoke to him. The Vice President wished Mr. Whittington well and asked if there was anything he needed. Obviously his situation deserves the careful monitoring that his doctors are providing.’ The Vice President's staff has still not answered detailed questions about this incident, Elizabeth. And it's not clear they ever will.”


# CBS Evening News. Bob Schieffer opened his broadcast:
“You just couldn't make it up. The Vice President of the United States accidentally shoots a companion on a hunting trip. The White House keeps it a secret for a day. Then when it appears the wounded man is okay, it sets off laughter and jokes from every corner of America. But tonight the jokes have stopped and the whole thing has turned serious. We're going first to Lee Cowan in Corpus Christi.”

Following Cowan’s report on Whittington’s condition, Schieffer set up a piece from Jim Axelrod at the White House:
“These have not been the best of days for White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan. Reporters tore him apart yesterday for waiting a full day to disclose any of this. By this morning, like the rest of America, he was making jokes about it. Then he found out the wounded man had suffered the heart attack. Yet, he did not reveal that at his daily briefing. And then there's the other question hanging over this: Why has the Vice President remained silent? Here's Jim Axelrod now at the White House, Jim.”

Jim Axelrod: “Well Bob, for the third straight day since his hunting accident, Vice President Cheney has said nothing publicly about the shooting. Just a statement from his office. Which is one more statement than offered yesterday. According to his office, Mr. Cheney learned when he arrived at work early this morning that Mr. Whittington's doctors were going to perform that cardiac catheterazation.”

Scott McClellan at daily briefing: “I understand you still have some-”

Axelrod: “Hours later, when White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan held the usual afternoon briefing, he knew about the medical procedure and the heart attack as wall but he said nothing. His hands were tied, the White House contends, by privacy concerns for the victim.”

Scott McClellan: “We're moving on to the priorities of the American people. [edit jimp] You can all spend your time on it. We're going to keep focusing on the pressing priorities of the American people. [edit jump] You're welcome to continue to focus on these issues. I'm moving on.”

Axelrod: “But the move-on drum beat was cut short just minutes after the White House briefing ended, when doctors appeared outside the Texas hospital to report on complications in Whittington's condition uncovered by their exam.”

Peter Banko, hospital administrator“Cardiologists and cardiac surgeons evaluated the results of that exam as well as talked to the White House medical team about the results of that exam.”

Axelrod: “Only then did the Vice President's office issue this public statement that Texas doctors had in fact been in touch with them all day. Once again, the President and his press office were on the side lines, watching Mr. Cheney shape the story of his own hunting accident. Mr. Cheney, never a big fan of the media to begin with, really couldn't care less what reporters think of him now. Unlike the four Vice Presidents who came before him, Mr. Cheney definitely won't be running for President. Bob?”

Schieffer then jumped to Gloria Borger:
“Alright Jim. Well I want to bring in our political correspondent, Gloria Borger. Now Gloria, I understand you've run across some people who are not too happy about the Vice President's actions and they turn out to be friends and supporters of the President.”

Gloria Borger, inside CBS’s Washington, DC facility: “That's absolutely right, Bob. A source that I can characterize as close to this administration says the people inside the White House are, quote, ‘livid’ about this. This source also tells us that, quote, ‘it's no longer about indulging Dick Cheney's views of press management.’ Instead, he says, ‘it's now about Iraq and Katrina and a range of other issues that play into the public's views of this administration's arrogance.’ And this source calls this a terrible mishandling. And he says that it's going just to give voice to the administration's critics. Bob?”

Schieffer: “Those are very, very strong statements there, Gloria. Where does this go? What happens here do you think? I mean certainly nobody’s going to ask the Vice President to quit.”

Borger: “No, I don't think so. But I think, Bob, privately signals are being sent into the Vice President's office that this has been handled badly and that perhaps the Vice President himself does need to come out and say something about it.”

Schieffer suggested: “So do you suppose that we'll see the role of the Vice President changing? I guess the first thing we'll want to wait and see is if the Vice President does come out and say something. Maybe back to the funeral beat is what Vice Presidents used to do before this Vice President came along.”

Borger: “Well, could be, Bob. But he's personally still very close to the President. I think the staffs of the President and the Vice President could be a collision course.”

Schieffer: “Thank you very much, Gloria. That's very interesting.”


# NBC Nightly News. Brian Williams teased from Torino:
“Shooting accident. The man shot by Vice President Cheney suffers a minor heart attack. And there are more questions tonight about who knew what and when.”

Williams began his newscast:
“Good evening. A bizarre story took an even more bizarre turn today when a man hospitalized in Texas suffered a mild heart attack because of a birdshot pellet that moved into his heart. The birdshot came from a gun fired by the Vice President of the United States. And this story, a scenario beyond the imagination of most of us, which has generated so much talk and so much interest, continued to play out today and the questions continue for the White House, mostly concerning who knew what and when. We begin our reporting here tonight, once again, with NBC News Chief White House correspondent David Gregory at the White House.”

David Gregory: “This morning doctors moved 78-year-old Harry Whittington back into intensive care when they discovered complications from Saturday's accidental shooting.”

Peter Banko, Christus Spohn Hospital administrator: “Some of the birdshot appears to have moved and lodged into a part of his heart causing the atrial fib and what we would say is a minor heart attack.”

Gregory: “Aides said the Vice President, who has yet to personally address the incident, spoke by phone with Whittington this afternoon to wish him well and according to a statement, told him, ‘he stood ready to assist.’ The White House was told of Whittington's turn for the worse this morning before it was announced. But Press Secretary Scott McClellan failed to disclose Whittington’s new condition when he faced reporters during the lunch hour. Instead McClellan brushed off new questions about the shooting incident.”

Scott McClellan, at pres briefing: “You all can spend your time on it. We're going to keep focusing on the pressing priorities of the American people.”

Gregory: “Unaware of the heart attack, a reporter asked if the White House was relieved that Whittington appeared to be fine.”

McCLellan: “Well, I think Mr. Whittington remains in our thoughts and prayers. We all want to make sure that he's okay and that he gets home and he recovers fully.”

Gregory: “There are still unanswered questions surrounding Saturday's shooting [questions on screen]. Why did the local sheriff in Kenedy County, Texas wait 14 hours to interview the Vice President? His office didn't return repeated phone calls today while the Secret Service and the Vice President's office insist Mr. Cheney was available immediately for questioning. Another question: Did the Vice President follow hunting safety guidelines? His office and one witness suggested Whittington was at fault because he failed to alert Mr. Cheney that he was rejoining the hunting party after searching for a downed bird. But experts say the burden is on the shooter.”

Skip Smith, hunting safety instructor: “Our rule is that you don't take a shot until you can see daylight or sky below the bird. That way you know the bird has cleared high enough in the air to clear the dog or anybody else around.”

Gregory: “Meanwhile, here at the White House aides have done little to hide their disagreement with the Vice President and his staff over the handling of this whole matter. Advisors, however, say for the President's part he remains focused on Harry Whittington's recovery.”

NBC moved on to a medical report, from Robert Bazell, on Whittington’s prognosis.
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