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PRESIDENT Lyndon B. Johnson once said, "If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: President can't swim".
The dynamic between the White House and its press corps is, in itself, a fascinating study. It is one that has constantly shifted over the course of presidential history, closely mirroring the state of the fourth estate. The way the Washington press covers politics has always been a reflection of its relationship with those at the top.
There was good reason why, for the longest time, the world at large remained oblivious to President John F. Kennedy's many sexual indiscretions.
It was, in part, due to the fact that many journalists at the time felt that the private lives of presidents should remain private. It was a different time, it was a different world, and there seemed to be a stronger distinction between news and gossip. But there is another reason. And it was that newspaper editors at the time were reluctant to expose a sitting president -- not to mention a member of one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in America.
All of that reverence and deference, however, would change with Watergate. With Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Because as the rest of the world, including all those intrepid souls within the White House press corps, remained oblivious to everything Tricky Dick was up to, two rookies, two "outsiders", from the Washington Post uncovered what was arguably the greatest scandal in US presidential history. And nothing was ever the same.
The Watergate Scandal would cause a total upheaval in the relationship between the White House and the press. How could they have missed what was going on? They were all sitting right there. Mere metres from the Oval Office.
With Watergate came an overwhelming disenchantment. The press corps felt cheated. They felt duped. But most of all they felt like they had failed at their jobs. And as a result, they resolved to never have the wool pulled over their eyes. Not again. Not ever.
The Carter presidency would see yet another shift. As would the Clinton presidency. The Bush administration, however, saw some of the most interesting developments. In light of 9/11, the Bush administration successfully hijacked the discourse with both a global war on terror and by labelling any and all dissenters as being anti-American. For two terms, this line of propaganda would successfully stifle a great many conversations. The debate surrounding torture. The question of whether or not there were in fact any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The public lynching of Valerie Plame.
Throughout the campaign and the early days of his administration, the media was accused of giving President Barack Obama something of a free ride. The Republicans constantly calling them out for some perceived bias towards the candidate.
Some claimed it was because of his race. That the fear of coming across as discriminatory somehow trumped journalistic integrity.
That there was some organised conspiracy. That the media was one big machine, grinding towards a singular agenda.
Last Friday, during Obama's Rose Garden announcement of a new immigration policy, a reporter from the Daily Caller website shouted out a question while the president was still delivering his prepared remarks. According to an account from the Associated Press, Neil Munro, who has worked for Tucker Carlson's online news portal for the last two years, interrupted the president by asking him why he favoured foreigners over American workers?
Munro's interjection earned him a sharp rebuke from the president. "Excuse me, sir," Obama said. "It's not time for questions, sir. Not while I'm speaking." It wasn't long before the small kerfuffle lit up the social media space, where many commentators criticised Munro for his rude and unprofessional behaviour.
Munro's excuse was this. He said that he "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".
Now Munro's explanation, while probably the most reasonable of all possible explanations, nevertheless has all the integrity as that from a schoolboy who's just been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Anyone watching the video of the speech could tell that the president was nowhere near wrapping up. He was mid-speech, mid-sentence, mid-point. What's more, the exchange between the president and Munro that followed his initial retort, sounded very little like that from an intrepid reporter who was hell bent on getting a story. In fact, it sounded a lot more like heckling.
There is no doubt that a reporter's job is to ask questions and get answers, to get the truth from those in power, to find out just what the government is up to. But there is a very fine line between asking a question for the purposes of elucidation and asking one for sake of shouting someone down. And Munro's actions, for better or for worse, falls firmly in the latter.
The greatest tragedy when something like this happens is that the journalist becomes the story. Suddenly it's all about the scandal. And it doesn't matter if the point he or she had to make was pertinent or not. Because it just got lost in and among all the noise.
No matter how one feels about a particular president or his policies, those acting in the arena as professionals should be compelled to behave like one. No one is asking for deference. But is decorum too much of a stretch? No one is asking for a mouthpiece. But surely sincere and honest journalism can also be mannerly and civilised. And if we can't agree on that, then can we agree that the least Neil Munro could have done at a presidential press conference was to button up his collar and straighten his tie?