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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder