When Dick Cheney surfaced on Wednesday long enough for an interview with Fox News eminence Brit Hume—an event that CNN’s Jack Cafferty promptly likened to “Bonnie interviewing Clyde”—the vice presidential media spin came out of a timeworn bag of political tricks. Cheney stepped forward and took responsibility. Whatever that means.
The top of the New York Times website swiftly put up a compliant headline: “Cheney Takes Full Responsibility for Shooting Hunter.” Later in the day, just before Fox News Channel aired interview segments at length, the summary from anchor Hume told viewers that Cheney accepted “full responsibility for the incident.” Yet, according to the transcript of the interview posted on the Fox site, Cheney never used the words “responsibility” or “responsible.”
Whatever their exact words, the politicians who can’t avoid acknowledging culpability are often the beneficiaries of excessive media plaudits for supposedly owning up to mistakes or worse. But those politicians rarely do more than just what the spin doctor ordered.
It’s not brave or even forthright for elected officials to express the contrition that seems advisable from a public-relations standpoint. When a convicted criminal voices remorse just before sentencing, the statement is often viewed as little more than a ploy dictated by circumstance. But when a politician ostensibly “takes responsibility” in the court of public opinion, much of the media coverage attaches great significance to an essentially meaningless statement that is a transparent effort to extinguish a scandal-fueled firestorm.
In almost every instance when a politician declares that he or she is “taking responsibility,” there’s no penalty attached to the proclamation. Across the terrain of political media, the I-take-responsibility maneuver is the equivalent of a hit-and-run driver offering an over-the-shoulder yell of “Sorry about that” while speeding away from a grisly scene.
On July 30, 2003—several months after the occupation of Iraq began—President Bush held a news conference while U.S. forces continued to search in vain for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. High up in a front-page story, The New York Times reported that Bush “took responsibility for the first time for an assertion in his State of the Union address about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program that turned out to be based on questionable intelligence.” Bush told reporters: “I take personal responsibility for everything I say, of course. I also take responsibility for making decisions on war and peace. And I analyzed a thorough body of intelligence, good, solid, sound intelligence that led me to come to the conclusion that it was necessary to remove Saddam Hussein from power.”
In that instance, as in so many others, Bush’s declaration about taking responsibility was nothing more than hot air to inflate ballooning rhetoric.
Last year, on Sept. 13 at the White House, the president said: “Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent that the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility.” Events during the five months since then, compounding the terrible effects of the administration’s deadly negligence in response to Hurricane Katrina, underscore the true significance of the I-take-responsibility scam.
When Brit Hume and Dick Cheney did their Fox trot the other night, they were performing the kind of spectacle we’ve seen many times on television. Network correspondents and powerful politicians know the steps and the boundaries. Their footwork may look simple, but it’s fancy and expertly practiced. Contrary to pretense, the probing journalist doesn’t probe too much, and the forthcoming politician merely hunkers down with a new twist.
And so it goes: Whether the focus is on a quail hunt, or extreme negligence in connection with a hurricane, or chronic deception that propels the mass slaughter of a war, top officials may finally opt to “take responsibility.” But media spin is not genuine change.
Norman Solomon’s latest book, “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death,” has just been published. To find out more about Norman Solomon and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.