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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue