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Obama interrupted: Disrespectful or latest in 'era of incivility'?

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Fri June 15, 2012
  • Reporter from conservative website interrupts Obama during his remarks on immigration
  • A clearly angered Obama responds: "Not while I'm talking"
  • Incident seen as latest in string of disrespectful actions toward the president

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama's angry response to a reporter who interrupted his Rose Garden remarks Friday was the latest salvo in what some political experts see as an era of incivility.

Neil Munro, a White House correspondent for the Washington-based website The Daily Caller, asked the president about his administration's dramatic policy shift on immigration while the president was in the middle of delivering prepared remarks.

"Excuse me, sir. It's not time for questions, sir," Obama fired back. "Not while I'm speaking."

Munro later told CNN's Brianna Keilar, "I have to ask the questions you all won't ask," referring to the reporters gathered who regularly cover the White House.

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"I always go to the White House prepared with questions for our president. I timed the question believing the president was closing his remarks, because naturally I have no intention of interrupting the president of the United States," Munro said in a statement on the Caller's website. "I know he rarely takes questions before walking away from the podium. When I asked the question as he finished his speech, he turned his back on the many reporters and walked away while I and at least one other reporter asked questions."

The president and journalist's terse exchange reflects the heightened polarized climate, political experts say.

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"We are in an era of incivility," said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. "There's been an erosion of respect for government officials post Watergate."

That erosion of respect also extends to the media.

"Part of the reason journalists have a bad reputation is that we're seen as rude and pushy, but in general you probably don't interrupt your mom if she's talking and you probably don't interrupt the president," said Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University.

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Obama has faced his fair share of heckling.

In 2009, South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson yelled "you lie" during the State of the Union address. The resulting controversy resulted in Wilson being formally taken to task by the House of Representatives. The lawmaker later offered the president an apology.

Earlier this year, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer was seen wagging her finger at Obama while on a Phoenix airport tarmac during his visit there.

Last year, Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner said first lady Michelle Obama "has a large posterior," a comment critics called racist and sexist. He, too, offered an apology.

Also in 2011, Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn apologized for comments he made on a radio program; he used the word "tar baby" to refer to the administration's policies.

Then there were all those derogatory and racially tinged signs at tea party rallies during summer 2010.

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Previous presidents have also faced heckling and rude comments.

A gathering of those attending Obama's inauguration booed former president George W. Bush as he and his wife departed the White House by helicopter. In 2008, an Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at Bush during a press conference in Baghdad and yelled, "This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog."

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But as the nation's first black president, the nature of Obama's heckling often feels as if there is something else lurking beneath the surface, Gillespie said.

"This is the dark undercurrent to the increased diversity of American culture," Gillespie said. "Usually when you have periods of progress there's some sort of backlash."

It's very difficult to parse out what is an undertone of disrespect from actions that have tinges of racism, said Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American studies professor at Duke University and the author of several books, including "New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity."

"I don't think you can separate the two," Neal said. "Even if it were a more civil moment Obama would be dealing with race in his presidency. The incivility piece is incredibly important here because I think that's largely been lost."

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