This week former Vice President Dick Cheney and President Barack Obama went head to head, toe to toe, and back to back. It was the ultimate battle, at least in the coverage. PEJ's Mark Jurkowitz explains why the media love a showdown like this one.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I'm Bob Garfield. This week, the battle of the speeches.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Two men, one the president of the United States, and the other the former vice-president, right now are preparing to deliver dueling speeches on how to deal with terrorists.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The showdown over national security: President Obama and former Vice-President Dick Cheney going toe to toe in back-to-back speeches —
BOB GARFIELD: The major newspapers framed it the same way, and for 24 hours there was absolute media consensus. Back-to-back policy speeches by the president and the former vice-president constituted a clash of titans. But did they really? Dick Cheney has been waging a month-long media campaign to defend Bush Administration interrogation abuses and to portray Obama as soft on terrorism. His principle argument - waterboarding saved American lives. Never mind the facts or legality or morality, or even logic; systematic war crimes could save American lives too. The question is have the media erred and even influenced the political dynamic by portraying an immensely unpopular ex-VP as equal and opposite to the president of the United States? Simply put, has the press invented a drama where none really exists? We put this question to Mark Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, who explained that the media just loved the reductionism of a head-to-head clash. But that, he says, doesn't mean the conflict is contrived or unimportant.
MARK JURKOWITZ: One of the things that the media claimed in the run-up to the Iraq War was that their failure to more closely scrutinize the rationale for going to war, weapons of mass destruction, part of that could be attributable to the fact that there weren't very many Democrats articulating an opposition that they could report about to Bush's war plan. Now, you can argue in those days that the Democrats didn't have much more power than the Republicans have right now. But clearly, the media would have glommed on to some major Democratic spokespeople, had they arisen to challenge the policy. So it's hard to calculate how much influence could Cheney have on policy. Is he getting over-covered at this moment? That's quite possible. Is it likely that the President of the United States is going to be able to maintain control of this narrative in the long run? Absolutely. Do the media tend to get a little overexcited when they can simply find an opposition leader with some credibility who emerges? Probably, at this point. But I don't think that's an issue that, frankly, is going to last all that far into the future.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me tell you something we discussed in our meeting. I'm curious to know what your reaction is to it. It was my suggestion [LAUGHS] that one of the reasons that the coverage has been the way it is is that the press, as an institution, is simply just kind of wide-eyed about Cheney's tour of news shows. I mean, I certainly don't remember an ex-vice-president, certainly one who left an office in such low esteem, going on the offensive like this, certainly not in my lifetime! Is it unprecedented?
MARK JURKOWITZ: There are two "man bites dog" elements to that story. One is, it does seem unusual, and that's been an element of coverage, to see somebody from a previous administration so aggressively go after his successor in —after such a short period of time, and obviously, that's in stark contrast, for example, to President Bush, who has opted for silence. And that's traditionally the way it's worked. Number two is there was a mythology that grew around Cheney when he was vice-president of the man who operated in the shadow, who gave — largely gave interviews to the FOX News Channel when he wanted to go public.
BOB GARFIELD: The power behind the throne.
MARK JURKOWITZ: Exactly, and now suddenly, he's Oprah Winfrey.
[BOB LAUGHS] You know, he's all over television. And certainly, that seems out of character, and that is part of what's fueling it.
BOB GARFIELD: One final question: the President scheduled his Thursday speech after Dick Cheney scheduled his, before the American Enterprise Institute. Is the White House reacting to Dick Cheney, or is it, you know, coincidence?
MARK JURKOWITZ: Well, you know, you'd have to talk to their strategist. It would seem to be — hard to believe that's a coincidence. I think they've noticed how much attention Cheney's gotten. Part of it is also driver by the fact that the president and even his allies will say this, needs to do some explaining of his own policy. This has not been a seamless couple of weeks for him, when it comes to national security issues. He reversed himself on the release of the photos. He was handed, at least temporarily, a legislative defeat on the closing of Guantanamo base by his own party in the Senate. So, he is finding that the execution of this policy is no mean feat. One of the things that's fascinating and to show you, you know, how easily it is to translate this story into a political battle and why it is that the media loves the red corner and the blue corner, I saw on, you know, the politico.com website today their instant poll was which speech on national security are you going to watch. When you can boil a, a very dicey and nuanced and complex national security issue down to who are you going to watch on television, you've got a story that the media can run with.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Mark, as always, thank you very much.
MARK JURKOWITZ: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Jurkowitz is an associate director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
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