February 17, 2006
Vince Foster and Dick CheneyBy Christopher J. Alleva
Some observers have compared the White House's handling of Dick Cheney's accident to Vince Foster's suspicious death in the summer of 1993. This comparison has been drawn mostly on the basis of delays in disclosure in both cases.
We know now the Clinton White House actively withheld information on this regrettable incident from the press, starting with the initial delay while they apparently worked on a major cover up. Numerous problems with the investigation ensued and serious misconduct was later exposed. White House Chief Counsel Bernard Nussbaum was eventually rebuked for mishandling this matter.
To test this comparison I researched reporting done on the Foster death by the Washington Post. I sampled stories from the date of the first report July 21, to August 8, 1993. This sampling method loosely approximates the current five day chronology of the Cheney story. My research reveals a collection of stories written with a very perceptible bias.
Ruth Marcus broke the story from the original White House press release. The next day, July 22, 1993, Lloyd Grove wrote the lamentation "Striking at the Heart of the White House" Grove introduced the piece with what can only be called appropriate sentiments such as:
This is wholly unremarkable viewed through the prism of 1993. Looked at through the lens of the Cheney story it exemplifies Post's abandonment of basic fairness and compassion.
Ruth Marcus followed the same day with a fawning eulogy headlined" "One of the Golden Boys... Clinton's Rock of Gibraltar." Again Marcus wrote a perfectly sensible story reflecting the natural human emotions arising from a tragedy like this:
Ann Devroy than adds the uncritical and sympathetic piece "Clintons Mystified..."
There's nothing inherently wrong with this reporting and that's the point. When reporting on their Democratic Party brothers in arms they are respectful and professional.
Now this Cheney incident comes along and they threw out any modicum of respect and restraint. Case in point, we have a national political reporter clownishly donning an orange hunting vest and sock cap on a cable news show, yucking it up with the ring master over the Vice President's regrettable misfortune.
The above stories about the Foster death, in contrast, marked the beginning of a string of uncritical reporting for the ensuing several weeks.
David Von Drehle followed with more reporting on Foster's death with Saturday and Sunday puff pieces like "friends left behind", "Vince Foster faithful adviser", "Arkansan's reflect on the tremendous toll of life in the seat of power." Von Drehle attended the funeral and filed a perfectly serviceable story. He captured what no doubt was a day full of sorrow and remembrance. Naturally, he couldn't resist repeating the well—worn "boy from Hope" nonsense.
Consummate Washington insider Meg Greenfield weighed in with her own lamentation simply titled: "A death in Washington" This report consisted of nostalgic impressions and quotes from her encounters with politicians and journalist at an exclusive dinner party. It all feels too cozy for comfort. Readers are cast on the outside, looking in on the rarefied world of Washington.
Fully seven days passed before there was a story on the nuts and bolts of the investigation.
Michael Isikoff uncritically reported the crack homicide detectives from the Park Police were leading. One day later Isikoff joined Devroy in revealing selected details apparently disclosed as part of the investigation.
Two weeks after Foster's death Walter Pincus churned out a story that sticks right to the "company line" with: "Vincent Foster: Out of his Element." Finally, on August 8, the estimable late Mary McGrory penned a note perfect apologist's essay snappily titled "The fog after Foster."
The early reporting record of the Foster death shows very little skepticism, lots of sympathy and a pronounced inclination to accept whatever whoppers the White House laid out for the press corps.
Contrast this with coverage on the Cheney matter: question everything, believe nothing, always infer the most nefarious and evil explanations. Conjecture and speculation are the rule of the day. All this being done with the irrefutable knowledge that no one got killed, and no one doubts it is anything other than a regrettable garden—variety accident.
The February 13 story by Nedra Pickler "Cheney cited for Breaking Hunting Law" typifies the tone and substance of the coverage printed by thePost. It was a $7.00 fine for not having the stamp endorsement on his valid hunting license. This violation is one step removed below a jaywalking citation. February 15, the Post picked up an AP byline from Erin McClam "Vice Presidents Share Curious Lineage." This fairly interesting story provides historical context — which is fine. The subtext is somewhat more sinister. Peppered with quotes like the one from John Nance Garner, FDR's two term veep who once characterized the VP's job as "not worth a bucket of warm spit" its easy to see where this is headed. Let's cut the Post a little slack now.
I must thank Howie Kurtz, the Post's usually even handed media critic for his unwitting assistance in proving my point. Save and except for the inapt comparison to the WMD story, the piece Kurtz wrote headlined "Gunning for Cheney" lays out clear and convincing evidence in excruciating detail of the withering attacks being leveled at Cheney by the media. As to be expected, Kurtz refrains from ascribing any motives for this conduct. I must say his zeal for objectivity takes a lot of zip out his arguments. Perhaps they can hire Meg Greenfield back for a cameo appearance. They can send her to some dinner party this weekend. Undoubtedly, the party will be teeming with journalists with nothing but sweet things to say about Dick Cheney.
Eventually the questions about Foster's death were too numerous to ignore. The seemingly interminable investigations into Foster's death never concluded anything. Thirteen years later, lingering doubts and nagging questions remain. This is in no small part a result of the press abdicating their responsibility. Unbelievably, more than a decade after Foster's death Charles Lane wrote:
Strangely, the incurious Washington Post never lifted a finger to advocate for the public's right to know in this case. Lane in fact disparages the overly insistent "right wingers" that peskily persisted in pursuit of the truth. The Post shows an unhealthy contempt for the truth especially if it is at odds with establishment orthodoxy—that is the Democrat Establishment.
While the Cheney story has not run its course, in all probability this will turn out to be much ado about nothing adding yet another chapter to the Post's journalistic legacy—such as it is. The comparison with the handling of Foster's death shows in stark relief what is meant by "media bias."