Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Why should the press be polite to presidents?

By Timothy Stanley, Special to CNN
June 22, 2012 -- Updated 1343 GMT (2143 HKT)
President Obama responds to a shouted question by a reporter with The Daily Caller at the White House last week.
President Obama responds to a shouted question by a reporter with The Daily Caller at the White House last week.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tim Stanley: Obama's recent interruption by Daily Caller reporter portrayed as rude
  • But he says there is long history of aggressive questioning of presidents by press
  • He says Wilson threatened to punch a reporter, Eisenhower was asked about his eye
  • Stanley: When presidents, like Obama, give few press conferences, pent-up press gets blunt

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for The Daily Telegraph in Britain. He is the author of the new book "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."

(CNN) -- The comedian Rodney Dangerfield used to complain, "I don't get no respect." Sometimes, it feels like those words ought to be printed on the presidential seal.

Last week, Barack Obama was interrupted by Daily Caller journalist Neil Munro while making a statement on immigration. Munro shouted questions at him until the president was forced to stop and demand silence. Many media outlets, particularly those with a liberal bent, were outraged.

The UK Guardian called it "a breach of etiquette so severe it managed to shock even the notoriously unfastidious journalistic profession." An MSNBC panel acknowledged that news conferences under Clinton and Bush could get awkward, but concluded that Obama gets even rougher treatment because of the color of his skin. The fact that Munro was shouting questions about immigration only added to the impression that the president's conservative persecutors are motivated by race.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

The problem is that this theory only holds up if Obama is being treated with a historically unique degree of hostility. He's not.

Relations between presidents and press have always been fraught. President Theodore Roosevelt was the first POTUS to try to cultivate journalists: He assigned them a room in the White House. But journalists who put out reports without Teddy's consent (so-called "Muckrakers") were cut out of the loop, denied access to any federal department. Incidentally, Roosevelt's relations with ordinary voters were just as prickly. In 1912, he was shot while giving a speech on the campaign trail. With admirable sangfroid, Teddy calculated from the lack of blood that the bullet had not penetrated any organs and finished his oration, before being rushed to the nearest hospital. It puts Obama being told "You lie!" into perspective.

Opinion: What's behind dissing of the president?

Obama interrupted at 'Dream Act' speech
Obama to heckler: No war in Iran yet
Online reporter interrupts Obama

It was Woodrow Wilson who started the formal press conference, and quickly regretted it. When reporters printed romantic rumors about his daughter, Margaret, Wilson harangued the press corps. "This must stop!" he shouted. "On the next offense, I shall do what any other indignant father would do. I will punch the man who prints it on the nose."

Franklin D. Roosevelt turned the press conference into the question and answer session we know today and mastered it. But poor Dwight Eisenhower, who was used to getting 100% respect as a soldier, found the experience as a citizen rather trying. At his first conference after he had declared his candidacy for the presidency in 1952, he was shocked when, in the middle of a speech about the defenses of Europe, a journalist interrupted to ask, "What's the matter with your eye?" The general explained that he had an infection. At a later date, he was asked his opinion of his rival Robert Taft and said, "He's a goddam isolationist." Eisenhower was genuinely surprised when the remark was printed.

Things only got worse in the 1970s, when Richard Nixon's combative approach to the press turned Watergate-era press conferences into a battleground. At a press conference on October 26, 1973, Nixon complained, "I have never seen or heard such outrageous, vicious, gutter reporting in 27 years of public life." Addressing one reporter, he added, "Yet, don't get the impression that you rouse my anger. You see, one can only be angry with those he respects."

Watergate changed everything: After that, presidents would shield themselves from the press and try to manage their public appearances better. This wiped clean the popular memory of fiery exchanges, interruptions and acid put downs that had defined the previous century. A new dynamic occurred, whereby there would be long periods of managed relations between press and president that gave the false impression of obeyed protocol and mutual respect. But then, in the midst of a crisis, all the bottled-up emotions would get released at once.

For example, while Lyndon Johnson held 135 solitary press conferences during his time in office, Ronald Reagan held only 46. The result was that when Reagan did take questions, the journalists often let him have it. The most notorious occasion was November 25, 1986, when Reagan held a press conference with Attorney General Ed Meese to discuss the Iran-Contra scandal. The president was interrupted by several reporters in the room — and reporters were still shouting questions as he walked away from the microphone.

A large part of Obama's problem is that he has followed the Reagan example -- testing the patience of the press by prioritizing stage managed events (he gave 408 interviews in his first three years, compared with George W. Bush's 136) over question and answer sessions.

According to political science professor Martha Kumar, Obama has held fewer press conferences for the White House press corps (17) than Bill Clinton (31), George H.W. Bush (56), and even Ronald Reagan (21) in the first three years. (George W. Bush, however, held only 11). Indeed, it's notable that after his confrontation with Neil Munro, Obama did not take questions. He was there to make a statement — it was not a news conference -- and it is understandable that some in the press might find that frustrating.

The bigger, more sensitive issue is the degree to which liberal supporters of the president are conflating disrespect and racism -- and so actually poisoning the political atmosphere even further.

Munro's interruption was rude and he deserved all the criticism he got. But times are tough in America right now and when things get rough, people inevitably turn on their leaders. Obama's announcement that the administration would grant effective amnesty to 800,000 children of illegal immigrants was bound to provoke an impassioned response.

A classier person than Munro might have found a better way to voice anxieties. But invoking "racism" as the only way to understand the righteous fury of the right sounds like an attempt to gag the opposition. The fact is that Obama is a controversial president during a difficult time in American history. It's surprising that he hasn't been interrupted more rudely and more often.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT