Obama heckled during speech: Journalist or douchebag?

A self-styled reporter heckled President Obama as he announced a major shake-up in immigration policy.

A reporter for a conservative news site interrupted President Barack Obama on Friday as he was announcing a decision to suspend the deportation of children brought to the U.S. illegally. The policy shift was a game-changer politically, because the president essentially dared Republican challenger Mitt Romney to denounce the move, knowing that he can't. Romney is in the unenviable position of having to serve two masters, as it were. To win in November, he must seize the Hispanic vote, which is wary of the hardline immigration policies he endorsed during the GOP primaries. And he must maintain the support of party's conservative base, which in many ways is anti-immigrant.

But that was nearly overshadowed by an unprecedented breach of decorum in the White House press corps by a correspondent named Neil Munro. Munro writes for The Daily Caller, a website that aims to be the conservative version of The Huffington Post. It was founded by Tucker Carlson, who is best known for one of two things: He once said he instinctively wants to cross his legs whenever Hillary Clinton walks into a room; and The Daily Show's Jon Stewart called him a dick on his own show, CNN's "Crossfire," which led to the demise of Carlson's career as a TV pundit.

Munro interrupted the president four minutes into his statement. Over the course of Obama's remarks, Munro shouted no fewer than six times while the he was speaking. The president was clearly livid, the White House Press Secretary had (surely pissy) words with Carlson afterward, and the media almost universally condemned his behavior and wondered: Is this a reporter or a heckler?

There were many reactions. Most said Munro's actions were disrespectful, outrageous, and/or deserving of sanction by the White House. Even Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith thought so. Some thought it was racist or at least in keeping with attempts by wing-nut operatives to discredit Obama. Yet of all observations, one lacks sufficient attention. Munro blatantly and egregiously lied afterward, and his boss has now launched a propaganda campaign to rewrite this history.

Here's Munro's take:

I always go to the White House prepared with questions for our president. I timed the question believing the president was closing his remarks, because naturally I have no intention of interrupting the President of the United States. I know he rarely takes questions before walking away from the podium. When I asked the question as he finished his speech, he turned his back on the many reporters, and walked away while I and at least one other reporter asked questions.

Salient points here: No intention to interrupt. "Mistimed" his question. And, importantly, Obama is stingy about questions.

No one can say with certainty what Munro intended, but we can say the president was not concluding his remarks. The event was carried live on CNN and others. The video clearly shows Obama was surprised by the interruption. Todd Zwillich, the radio correspondent for The Takeaway, tweeted this:

I was standing right behind Munro in the Rose Garden. Idea he 'mistimed' his questions isn't credible. He purposely interrupted. 

And even if he had "mistimed" his question, he didn't stop with one. In fact, he bullied the president into taking questions. The Village Voice's Steven Thrasher was standing next to Munro and captured the "only clean audio of what he heckled at President Obama."

Obama: Excuse me, sir.

Munro: You have to take questions.

Obama: It's not time for questions, sir.

Munro: No, you have to take questions.

Obama: Not while I'm speaking.

So whatever he intended, this was not a matter of mistiming. It appeared deliberate, because not only did he interrupt the president, but he badgered him. This is why some headlines put quotes around "reporter." To serious journalists, Munro was not practicing journalism.

But remember that third salient point in Munro's statement – that Obama is stingy with questions. This has become grounds for Tucker Carlson's push to reframe what happened, not in terms of Munro's belligerence, disrespect and douchebaggery but in terms of heroic journalism. Obama is so hard to get a straight answer out of that a man's got to get tough. Munro wasn't heckling Obama, as Diane Sawyer said during ABC's live coverage of the event; he was searching for the truth. Tucker wrote:

A reporter’s job is to ask questions and get answers. Our job is to find out what the federal government is up to. Politicians often don’t want to tell us. A good reporter gets the story.

Since Friday, Carlson has been on Fox News and other sympathetic news outlets to blame the "liberal media" for not understanding the important work of Munro and The Daily Caller, and to recast Obama as the villain and Munro as the hero. He told Fox News' Sean Hannity, who suggested Munro's timing was a tad off:

The point is that Neil Munro wants his questions answered. We can argue about how he asked it, what venue he asked it, but the bottom-line is that he's doing what a lot of people who cover the White House aren't doing, which is pressing for answers.

Let's forget that The Daily Caller and Tucker Carlson in particular are considered a joke among many journalists, left and right. Let's instead take him at his word -- that Munro is serious.

Fine. Then where was his notebook?

A serious White House correspondent dogging the president and asking the tough questions no one else who is covering the White House is asking would surely have a notebook, right? I'm not the first to notice its conspicuous absence, and its absence suggests only one conclusion. Munro isn't serious. Nor is Carlson. In fact, they are committing a host of journalistic sins, chief among them is a propaganda campaign to save what little credibility The Daily Caller had in Washington.

If he had mistimed his question, Munro could have apologized and moved on. He didn't, because that's not what he was doing. A journalist would never ask the President of the United States questions with his hands in his pockets. But a heckler would.

Neil Munro heckles Obama. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.


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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.