When did Americans become so infantilized as to treat the president of the United States like he’s the only adult in the room?
Last Friday, The Daily Caller’s Neil Munro set off a firestorm of debate over decorum when he interrupted President Barack Obama, whose staff had gathered a Rose Garden press conference to announce an executive order that would grant temporary work permits to children of immigrants who came to the U.S. by extralegal means. The entire kerfuffle transmits resounding signals to us onlookers: the government would like the market for political representation to continue failing, and the members of the mainstream media are willing accomplices.
“[I]nterrupting the President, any president, is NOT doing your job,” tweeted Fox News’s Ed Henry, a reference to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney’s recent missive that reporters are not rigorous enough in providing context to their stories. “The stunt dummy interrupting POTUS during statement hurts whatever cause he represents by being rude,” tweeted outgoing CNN host John King. Tony Fratto, former assistant Treasury secretary, former deputy press secretary under President Bush, and CNBC contributor, tweeted, “Reporters don’t interrupt presidential statements. Period. @NeilMunroDC should be banned from WH.” ABC’s Diane Sawyer reduced Munro from White House correspondent to “heckler.” Sam Donaldson, himself a long-time antagonist to President Ronald Reagan, said in a statement to The Huffington Post that Munro’s behavior evidences a pet leftist trope: that any critical questioning of the president or his motives is necessarily rooted in anti-African-American sentiment. An MSNBC panel agreed, naturally.
The list goes on.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who found herself barred indefinitely from traveling on Senator John McCain’s campaign airplanes in September 2008, understands better than most the importance of not trading the integrity of one’s craft for access to the powerful. I applaud her for not (publicly) joining the rest of the pack in crucifying Munro. According to Washington Post reporter David Nakamura, Jay Carney emailed Daily Caller editor-in-chief Tucker Carlson after the incident, “presumably about the reporter who interrupted Obama today.” Munro and Carlson may now learn what happens when you don’t play the game according to the political class’s rules.
This is unfortunate, because in the market for political representation, the powerful thrive on market failure. Economics teaches us that (near-) perfect information is a prerequisite for well-functioning markets. Thus, in the market for political representation, the press plays the critical role of finding and relaying information to the public it otherwise would not have, of correcting an information asymmetry. When the press cannot (or does not) do its job, or when the government will not allow it to do so, the government enjoys surplus political capital (support, votes, power) at the expense of the governed.
It is deeply troubling that reporters have succumbed so far to this paradigm of failure that an incident like Friday’s shocked the status quo such that a veteran Washington reporter found himself castigated openly by his colleagues.
As my former Cato Institute colleague Gene Healy wrote in his book The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power, “For the first century and a half of the presidency, however, even as threats to the chief executive increased, American political culture proved remarkably resistant to the idea of restricting public access to the president. Americans still believed that any chief executive who could hide behind a coterie of guards was one who had grown far too distant from the people he was supposed to serve.” On Friday, the chief executive hid not behind “a coterie of guards,” but behind the veil of made-for-television pageantry. And many in the press rushed to his defense, either out of a desire to preserve the industry’s relationship to the executive … or more cynically, because of a “slobbering love affair.”
Healy also wrote, “[In the post-Watergate era], the newly adversarial journalism gave rise to much handwringing on the part of those earnest souls who saw muckraking as an impediment to government doing great works. … The governing class tends to agree.” Excuse me while I bottle my crocodile tears for our well-heeled idealistic overlords, who would rather continue expanding the reach of federal power into my life than carry out the sacred charge of protecting my liberties.
Reasonable people should concede that Neil Munro was rude in his outburst, if inadvertently so. I have a lingering question: so what? I watched clips of the exchange several times on Friday afternoon with some delight. This is not an endorsement of rudeness. Rather, I watched what Samuel Adams once called the “animated contest of freedom” unfolding before my very eyes. It was invigorating! It is no small irony that, as the president and a lone reporter squared off in the Rose Garden, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered a speech at the American Enterprise Institute across town on the importance of the First Amendment to a free society. I hope the mainstream press finds the “teachable moment” in this incident, and reconsiders the crucial role it plays in society.