MEDIA WATCH: Upbeat spin can't quell underlying concern forCheney's health

The quiet start to the first week of July meant Vice President Dick

Cheney's heart surgery drew intense coverage from all media. Cheney

underwent tests for an irregular heartbeat and subsequently had a

combination pacemaker/defibrillator implanted in his chest during

weekend surgery.



Cheney termed the device "a pacemaker-plus." In the aftermath of the

surgery, efforts were made to downplay the seriousness of the event. US

News and World Report (July 9) observed, "A nonchalant Dick Cheney

portrayed his latest bout with heart disease as more of a public

relations condition than a medical crisis."



Despite efforts by Cheney, his aides, and his doctors to spin the story

as a non-event, reporters focused most often on the vice president's

medical history. USA Today (July 2) wrote, "A fog of happy talk

continues to blur the bad news about Vice President Cheney...(who) has

had four heart attacks since 1978. He had quadruple bypass surgery in

1988. In the past eight months alone, he has had a heart attack, surgery

to install a stent to keep a clogged artery open, and then more surgery

to clear the clogged stent."



At the same time, coverage quoted Cheney and his doctors describing the

surgery as a preventative "insurance policy" rather than a reaction to

any deterioration in the vice president's condition. Dr. Jonathan

Reiner, Cheney's cardiologist, stated, "This was a proactive procedure.

This was not a response to a problem, this was an effort to prevent a

problem" (Newsday, July 1).



Cheney's doctors emphasized how fit the vice president is. The New York

Times (July 1) ran a front-page story in which Dr. Reiner assessed,

"Although Mr. Cheney has moderately impaired heart function, he has no

symptoms nor evidence of heart failure; he has lost 20 pounds in recent

months, and his cholesterol is terrific."



Reports hinted that aides were trying too hard to convince the media

that the surgery did not disrupt Cheney's duties as vice president. A

number of articles stated something to the effect of, "Aides went out of

their way to paint Cheney's first day back on the job as typical" (St

Louis Post-Dispatch, July 3).



A handful of reports did not buy the upbeat version of the story,

believing Cheney's condition and the surgery to be more serious than the

White House was willing to admit. The Wall Street Journal (July 2)

quoted a doctor who was not involved in the procedure as voicing concern

about the surgery: "It's a marker of the severity of his disease. This

is not a pacemaker-plus. I don't know why he's spinning this

disease."



Perhaps what was gnawing away at the back of skeptical reporters' minds

was the perception that the White House has not always been especially

forthcoming about Cheney's health. A few articles referenced the initial

description by then-President-elect Bush that Cheney's November 2000

heart attack was not a heart attack at all. The Christian Science

Monitor (July 2) reported, "Until this episode, the White House has

played down questions about the vice president's health - and has said

as little as possible."



While everyone welcomes the news that Cheney is doing well following his

surgery and is still capable of doing his job, media reports are

indicating that the nation is still worried about his health. The speed

of Cheney's operation and return to work also left some wondering if

they'd get similarly prompt service from their own healthcare

providers.



Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found

at www.carma.com.



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