Watching a reporter heckle President Barack Obama at the White House last week reminded me of a troubling parallel: Witnessing journalists disrespecting Mayor David Dinkins, New York’s first – and only – black mayor.
I was covering a press conference at City Hall in 1990 watching reporters shout questions to Dinkins by calling him “Dave.”
Not, “Mr. Mayor,” or “Mayor Dinkins,” – which I referred to him – but “Dave.” It was so disrespectful that Dinkins’ press secretary was forced to hold a press conference just to ask reporters not to call Dinkins “Dave.”
Longtime civil rights activists told me they couldn’t remember a time when reporters called a New York mayor by his first name during a press conference – but then again, New York had never elected a black mayor before.
Suddenly, after Dinkins’ historic election, the rules of journalist etiquette and respect in a public forum had changed overnight. And the contempt and total disregard toward another high-profile black elected official – this time President Obama – continues today.
Last week, during a press conference at the White House where Obama announced a change of policy that would allow the children of illegal immigrants to avoid deportation, he was interrupted in mid-sentence by Neil Munro, a reporter for The Daily Caller, an infamous conservative website.
The interruption surprised Obama – and also stunned the White House press corp.
“Mr. President, why do you favor foreign workers over Americans?” Munro shouted.
“Excuse me, sir,” Obama said, raising his hand in the air to scold Munro.
“It’s not time for questions, sir,” Obama said. “Not while I’m speaking.”
A few minutes later, Obama chastised Munro.
“And the answer to your question, sir, and the next time I’d prefer you let me finish my statements before you ask that question, is this is the right thing to do for the American people.”
But Munro then interrupted Obama again.
“I didn’t ask for an argument,” Obama said, “I’m answering your question.”
Munro broke decorum at the White House by cutting off Obama during the president’s statement in the Rose Garden, but it also raises the issue of a conservative journalist heckling the nation’s first African-American president before a national audience.
It was disgraceful, unacceptable – and a blatant attempt to shame Obama. But Munro wasn’t acting alone. His decision to heckle Obama is part of an orchestrated campaign by conservatives who are so terrified that Obama will be re-elected, that they are creating new and desperate techniques to cast the president in an unfavorable light.
Don Lemon, an African-American anchor on CNN, lit into Munro during a live broadcast.
"This is America…we pride ourselves on civility. And we also respect the Office of the Presidency just as we respect the courage of a man or a woman who dons a uniform to fight for our country,” Lemon said.
“As a journalist, I know there are ways to get my questions answered. It may not always be on the timeline I want, but there's always a way to do it,” he added. “And Mr. Munro interrupting to leader of the free world at the White House in front of an international audience is not the way."
Not surprising, conservatives immediately rallied around Munro, arguing that he was absolutely right to take on Obama.
The editor in chief of The Daily Caller, Tucker Carlson, defended Munro’s actions as a great achievement in journalism.
“As a general matter, reporters are there to ask questions,” Carlson said. “No politician wants to answer questions, but that’s not our concern.”
Meanwhile, Munro, who made national headlines for his behavior, explained his actions — on his own website.
Watch his defense below
“I thought he was ending his speech – his statement – but then I asked a question at the end and he turned his back on the reporters and walked away,” Munro said.
“Other reporters sit around quietly not asking questions, not shouting questions because it risks their access to White House off the record comments and future chances of asking questions, but this is a very important issue,” he added. “There’s no reason we should sit around and wait for another day for an answer on this important question.”
Munro wasn’t just asking a question for his story – he was carrying water for Republicans who want to see Obama humbled.
So there’s no reason why I should sit around and wait another day to call Munro out for being a GOP flunky — and remind folks that Dinkins lost his re-election bid to Rudy Guiliani, which started with disrespectful calls of "Dave" from inside City Hall.
Watch the reporter defend his heckling below: