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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.