The Cheney Vice Presidency
by Barton Gellman
Penguin, 384 pp., $27.95
Anyone still interested in the sorry state of mainstream journalism should have a good, long look at Barton Gellman's blistering portrait of Dick Cheney. Despite some labored huffing and puffing over Cheney's behind-the-scenes role on everything from surveillance techniques to global warming, Gellman adds very little that is new to the historic record. What Angler is most notable for is its obvious animus and its disregard for the traditional newsman's separation of church (editorial opinion) and state (fact-based reporting).
Gellman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories in the Washington Post on which this book is based, is a prime exemplar of the new kind of journalism that conflates reportage and opinion in ways that, not long ago, would have outraged news editors. But not only are some of today's senior editors tolerant of such front-page editorializing, they are critical of reporters who don't provide it.
In an astonishing recent review of Bob Woodward's latest book on the Bush administration, Jill Abramson, the New York Times "managing editor for news," had this to say about that:
What is most consequential . . . is the evolutionary shift it marks for the author. Woodward is famous for his flat, just-the-facts-ma'am style, if one can call it that. It is the old fashioned newspaperman's credo of show, don't tell. He rarely pauses in his narratives to synthesize or analyze, let alone judge his powerful subjects, especially those who have been his sources. . . . In contrast to his other Bush volumes [this] does provide interstitial analysis and judgments throughout. It also renders an extremely harsh, final appraisal of President Bush.
Later in the same review, Abramson declares that Woodward's books "offer a chilling lesson in how not to lead."
Statements like this apparently don't disqualify Jill Abramson from directing the Times news coverage of the Bush administration, but they certainly confirm a popular riff on the Times's famous motto: Is it All the News That's Fit to Print, or All the News That Fits? Whatever the answer, it is clear from the ongoing Pew Foundation report on public attitudes toward the media, and from other similar studies, that the liberal bias of the mainstream media is an established fact for most consumers. What is interesting about this is that, not only are the practitioners not on their guard to appear unbiased, they seem to have decided that they may as well enjoy their bad reputation and take their best shots.
Angler is neither well written nor particularly instructive on the motives and methods of a vice president who has exercised enormous influence over the last eight years. Much of the material on Cheney's reticence with the press-surprise!-and his conviction that the presidency had been weakened by an overzealous Congress, is deeply familiar. But the volume is a treasure trove of journalistic techniques deployed to bag the quarry.
There is the bogus use of comparative statistics.
For Sept. 11, the National Center for Health Statistics recorded a 44 percent spike over the expected daily death rate, followed by a return to normal on Sept. 12. The year-end tally showed 2,922 lives lost to "terrorism involving the destruction of aircraft (homicide)," a figure that was comparable to the 3,209 pedestrians killed by cars, pick-up trucks or vans. (Non-terrorist homicides exceeded 17,000.) The economic damage was extensive, but no match for the losses of Hurricane Katrina or the subprime mortgage meltdown in Bush's second term.
Whatever one might think of this dismissal of the September 11 horrors, it is entirely in keeping with the author's apparent conviction that terrorism is essentially a matter for the police and that the Bush administration's response is a greater threat than terrorism itself. "The vice-president shifted America's course," writes Gellman, "more than any terrorist could have done. . . . Decisions made in the White House, in response [to terrorism] had incomparably greater impact on American interests and society."
Then there is the use of the unattributed quotation when a sharp knife is required. One commission insider, a Cheney admirer who did not want to be named, said the vice president and his staff "had their plans" for presidential succession "and their plans were going to be by fiat." This comes at the end of a chapter alleging the vice president's efforts to get the speaker of the House removed from the chain of succession should the president and vice president be incapacitated in a terrorist attack.
There is the cherry-picking of evidence. Much is made, for example, of an Australian intelligence report debunking the purchase by Saddam Hussein's Iraq of electronic maps of the United States and of the doubts regarding aluminum tubing suspected of being useful in making centrifuges for a nuclear bomb. Angler reflects almost none of the fairly consistent foreign intelligence agreement that Saddam had, or was close to having, weapons of mass destruction. The fact that Saddam used such weapons on the Kurds is not even mentioned.
And finally, there is the use of political enemies to skewer the prey. Every sentient being inside the Beltway knows that former Majority Leader Dick Armey hates Cheney, so who does Gellman call for the money shot on the Cheney legacy? Here's Armey on Cheney: "I think that most of the time history is about a presidency, and a president. And the vice president is almost always a footnote in that story. But I believe that in this case history is going to treat both the president and the vice president unkindly almost in equal part."
History may well judge this vice president and his boss harshly. They certainly were dealt a turbulent eight years, and historians will be sifting the evidence for years to come. But Angler won't be a must-read for historians. Perhaps some fair-minded journalism professor will serve it up someday as a case study in media bias.
Christopher Willcox, former editor in chief of Reader's Digest, was deputy assistant secretary of defense during 2001-05.