Anatomy of a Myth

By Dan Froomkin
11:50 AM ET, 05/19/2009

Here's a classic example of an inaccurate story instantly gaining mythological status.

As Mark Silva blogs for Tribune, Washington yesterday was "abuzz with word that Vice President Joe Biden reportedly had disclosed the location of the undisclosed location that his predecessor, Dick Cheney, made mysteriously famous."

Consider the Fox News headline: Biden Reveals Location of Secret VP Bunker.

What set it all off was a blog post by Newsweek's Eleanor Clift: "Ever wonder about that secure, undisclosed location where Dick Cheney secreted himself after the 9/11 attacks? Joe Biden reveals the bunker-like room is at the Naval Observatory in Washington, where Cheney lived for eight years and which is now home to Biden. The veep related the story to his head-table dinner mates when he filled in for President Obama at the Gridiron Club earlier this year. He said the young naval officer giving him a tour of the residence showed him the hideaway, which is behind a massive steel door secured by an elaborate lock with a narrow connecting hallway lined with shelves filled with communications equipment. The officer explained that when Cheney was in lock down, this was where his most trusted aides were stationed, an image that Biden conveyed in a way that suggested we shouldn’t be surprised that the policies that emerged were off the wall."

Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger write in The Washington Post that Clift's "source" was the club's newsletter, in which club President Dick Cooper of the Tribune Co. recounted what Biden had said to him at the dinner -- fully two months ago.

But Clift apparently put two and two together and got five. The room in question was not Cheney's secret bunker.

As Silva writes: "Elizabeth Alexander, Biden's spokeswoman, offered this explanation this afternoon: 'What the vice president described in his comments was not - as some press reports have suggested - an underground facility, but rather, an upstairs workspace in the residence, which he understood was frequently used by Vice President Cheney and his aides.

"'That workspace was converted into an upstairs guestroom when the Bidens moved into the residence,' Alexander said. 'There was no disclosure of classified information.'"

But too late -- Biden's latest "gaffe" has now entered the pop-culture bloodstream.

Via U.S. News, here was Jay Leno last night: "Well, another gaffe by Vice President Joe Biden. God bless Joe Biden....He's been our savior here. 'Newsweek' is reporting that at the Gridiron Dinner, Joe Biden started talking and accidentally revealed Dick Cheney's secret hiding place. See, there's more proof you don't need waterboarding to get secret information. Just give Joe Biden a couple of drinks."

And David Letterman: "Here's something that I am very excited about. Joe Biden, the current vice president, was yakking away over the weekend. And he -- remember when Dick Cheney...was in an undisclosed location and everybody thought where?...So supposedly top secret information, classified information. And Joe Biden just says, 'No, I know where he was. He was hiding under his house.'... Joe Biden is living proof that people can give up sensitive information without being tortured."

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