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