Pssst, Have You Heard The One About

Everybody’s talking about it, from conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh to the National Journal’s Vaughn Ververs. The it is yesterday’s front-page article by The New York Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller, headlined: “Hear the Rumor on Cheney? Capital Buzzes, Denials Aside.”

Writes Bumiller:

In the annals of Washington conspiracy theories, the latest one, about Vice President Dick Cheney’s future on the Republican ticket, is as ingenious as it is far-fetched. But that has not stopped it from racing through Republican and Democratic circles like the latest low-carb diet.

The newest theory — advanced privately by prominent Democrats, including members of Congress — holds that Mr. Cheney recently dismissed his personal doctor so that he could see a new one, who will conveniently tell him in August that his heart problems make him unfit to run with Mr. Bush. The dismissed physician, Dr. Gary Malakoff, who four years ago declared that Mr. Cheney was “up to the task of the most sensitive public office” despite a history of heart disease, was dropped from Mr. Cheney’s medical team because of an addiction to prescription drugs.

In what Slate’s Eric Umansky called the Times’ Page One version of the New York Post’s Page Six, the Times “details the rumor, dismisses it, and then ponders its larger meaning.”

Media outlets around the country picked up the squishy story, apparently on the theory that “if it’s solid enough for the Times, it’s solid enough for us here in Tucumcari!” (Though, to be sure, some felt queasy enough about Bumiller’s non-story to cover their anatomies with backpedaling headlines.

Denials flew, White House spokesman Scott McClellan scolded, and reporters failed to secure a confirmation. That, in turn, prompted a whole second-day rehash of the story and rumor. And it colored coverage in places like Iowa, where the vice president was campaigning.

The Journal’s Vaughn Ververs writes: “Could the Times perhaps be signaling that it knows a little more about this possibility than they are able to report at the moment? If so, it’s a sneaky and inappropriate way to do so. If they have it, they should report it; if not, don’t insinuate.”

That’s our thinking, too. We’re just hoping that the Times’ level-headed and unbowed public editor Daniel Okrent hasn’t finished writing his column for this Sunday.

We’d love to hear his take on this Hey-Guess-What-I-Heard! school of reporting.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.