“When there is no news, send rumours,” Wilbur F. Storey of the Chicago Times instructed one of his Civil War correspondents. Last week, the New York Times took Storey’s advice, pepping up the newspaper by sluicing some unsubstantiated Washington gossip and chitchat onto Page One in “Hear the Rumor on Cheney? Capital Buzzes, Denials Aside” (July 15).
The subject of the piece was whether President Bush would dump Vice President Cheney from the ticket. Such journalistic speculations are common in Washington whenever a White House incumbent runs for re-election, especially in the weeks preceding his uncontested re-nomination. But in order to qualify as news, veepicide stories should be anchored to something real: White House sources telling reporters, sotto voce, that a switch is being considered; a concerted move by leaders in the president’s party to convince him to drop his current veep; or newly minted campaign buttons declaring “Bush/Powell ‘04.” Something! Anything!
Publicizing baseless rumors runs counter to the standards of most American newspapers, especially the ethically scrupulous New York Times. Almost to a one, American newspapers pride themselves on publishing only information they can substantiate. And yet there the Times was, heralding the “R” word in the headline, neither knocking down the rumor nor proving it true.
The story’s author, Elisabeth Bumiller, avoided the word “rumor” in her copy and instead labeled the veep talk as the latest Washington “conspiracy theory.” In ordinary parlance, a conspiracy theory describes something preposterous or paranoid. But you didn’t have to read very far into Bumiller’s 1,100-word piece to realize that she was not using the phrase the way the rest of us do. She presented the veepicide talk (“as ingenious as it is far-fetched”) as something quite plausible.
So who, exactly, was buzzing about the dump Cheney rumors?
* Bumiller wrote that “prominent Democrats, including members of Congress” were advancing “privately” the conspiracy theory that Cheney’s old doctor (the drug user) was conveniently dismissed so that his new doctor could tell him his heart made him unfit to do another tour of duty. Number of named sources? Zero. Documentary evidence? None.
* There was, writes Bumiller, a “Washington guessing game” about Cheney’s replacement, “with the names of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Senator John McCain of Arizona whispered about the most.” Number of named game players? Zero. Number of players? None given.
* Republican boosters of Rudolph W. Giuliani clearly hoped their man would get the job. Number of boosters named? Zero. Number of boosters? None given.
* “Democrats, as part of their campaign to discredit the competition, are energetically promoting the idea that Mr. Cheney is a drag on the ticket.” Number of named Democrats dissing Cheney? One.
* Bumiller wrote, “As one House Republican said, conspiratorially, outside the House chamber this week, ‘Watch Cheney.’ Another Republican member of Congress said that Mr. Cheney was increasingly viewed as a political liability.” Number of potentially anti-Cheney Republicans spotted in the House? Two. Neither named.
* Journalist Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report, who advised Cheney to “watch his back.”
* Alfonse M. D’Amato, former Republican senator, who publicly called for Cheney’s replacement.
Final roll call: Unnamed, unnumbered Democrats in Congress; unnamed, unnumbered prominent Democrats; unnamed, unnumbered guessing game players; unnamed, unnumbered Giuliani supporters; more unnamed, unnumbered Democrats; one named Democrat; two unnamed Republican members of the House; one named journalist; one named but washed-up Republican politician.
Some list. Restacked, the facts probably provide a better case for Cheney’s return to the ticket.
Send your best rumor to email@example.com. Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson defended the veep piece this week at CJR’s Campaign Desk. For the best book ever written about the foibles of journalism, go to Amazon and order a used copy of Stephen Bates’ book, If No News, Send Rumors. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)
Correction, July 26: The original copy mistakenly stated that a C-SPAN caller asked Vice President Cheney about his future on the presidential ticket. The question came from a C-SPAN staffer. (Return to the corrected sentence.)