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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle