It’s not just that interrupting the president of the United States, as Neil Munro from the Daily Caller did not once but twice last week during a routine press event in the White House Rose Garden, crossed the line from uncivil to inappropriate. The question he shouted, “Mr. President, why do you favor foreign workers over Americans?” was unprofessionally divisive. Resorting to race-baiting or pitting groups of human beings against one another is not journalism worthy of a White House press pass.
Was Munro’s question really about “foreign” people, or “brown” people? Did he intend, or was he really unaware, that his question fed racist stereotypes and a polarizing “us vs. them” narrative? Is he truly unaware of the numerous studies indicating that illegal immigrants actually don’t take jobs away from Americans? Or, as Pia Orrenius, senior economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, reportedly has suggested, that the real question among most economists is why the impact of the nation’s illegal immigrants on the labor market is so small.
Rather than helping to further understanding about the policy being announced, Munro engaged in exactly the kind of provocative-for-the-sake-of-it “journalism” that cheapens our national debate on important issues, contributing to a more polarized, less informed, un-civil society at exactly the time we need more engagement from the American people, not less.
Two recent reports show that we have become more polarized along partisan lines and the costs of an increasingly un-civil American society. According to a Pew study examining polarization of American values, while our core values have remained consistent, they have become increasingly polarized along partisan lines, more so than divides “such as race, ethnicity, gender, class and religion.” In its third annual poll examining civility in America, Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate and KRC Research found that not only do 63 percent of Americans see incivility as a major problem, Americans are also tuning out politics, government and the media because of it. The study also found that 62 percent say the tone of media is uncivil and that 82 percent believe the media is more interested in controversy than facts. Taken together, these studies suggest that incivility is stifling meaningful debate, sending both camps into their separate corners, increasingly unable to work together to solve problems.
Our polarized, uncivil state also stifles our ability to talk openly and honestly about racism in America. Some recognized the obvious racial implications in Munro’s interruptions, while others called it “tough journalism,” uncivilly accusing anyone raising the point as a “race-baiter.” But are we really to believe that a journalist covering the Obama White House was unaware of the cultural implications or the potential backlash of America’s first black president being the only president to be interrupted both during a Rose Garden press event and State of the Union address?
Time and again the right wing has labeled President Obama as “divisive” and right-wing and some mainstream media continue to depict African-American men as angry and scary (as Bill Maher so effectively pointed out on his show last week) rather than professional, hard-working or loving. Yet, as he has done so many times before, during that offensive exchange, Obama responded firmly and respectfully to both interruptions, affording Munro the courtesy of referring to him as “Sir,” and, without raising his voice or moderating his tone, told him to wait until he had finished his statement before asking questions.
Neither civility nor incivility should be used to prevent tough questions from being posed or answered.
Karen Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant, and co-host of POTUS/Sirius XM’s “The Flaks.”