The Ethics of Heckling Bill

When you are Bill Clinton and you decide to speak to a crowd of progressive bloggers, you should be prepared for some fireworks. And fireworks there were, when Clinton said gay blogger Lane Hudson would feel comfortable as a member of the mobs at the health care town meetings after Hudson interrupted Clinton with questions about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act.

At Huffington Post, Hudson reflected on why he decided to challenge Clinton

But it became clear there would be no questions. As I sat in the audience thinking about how Netroots Nation is about celebrating the most open forum of discussion ever to exist, it occurred to me that we were nothing more than a captive audience being talked to. One way communication was NOT what we were there to celebrate and advance.

As I considered this, I turned to my friend who had helped to formulate the question I wanted to ask and said, “I might just yell something out.” I couldn’t believe I said it. I mean, blogging and speaking my mind is one thing, but to yell it out in a large public forum to a former President of the United States is quite another.

He talked about a new progressive era and how America has changed. Yet, there was no reflection on how that change could undo some big mistakes form his Presidency. So, at the point that he said, “We need an honest, principled debate”, I knew I had to try to stimulate the discussion. So, I stood and said, “Mr. President, will you call for a repeal of DOMA and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? Right now?”

The immediate response shocked me at the time and still does. Those surrounding me yelled at me, booed, and told me to sit down. One elderly lady even told me to leave. While I was among the supposed most progressive audience in the country, they sought to silence someone asking a former President to speak out on behalf of repealing two laws that TOOK AWAY RIGHTS OF A MINORITY. I was shocked.

For a transcript of the exchange between Clinton and Hudson, check out Pam’s House Blend, where Pam Spaulding talks about the clubby nature of the progressive blog gathering. For more metablogging, checkout the take of Michelangelo Signorile, Think Progress, and Megan Carpentier.

Clinton’s reaction was classic Clinton, going on the defensive and blaming the media, but then launching into a stream-of-consciousness about his feelings regarding DADT and DOMA.

You couldn’t deliver me any support in the Congress and they voted by a veto-proof majority in both houses against my attempt to let gays serve in the military, and the media supported them. They raised all kinds of devilment. And all most of you did was to attack me instead of getting me some support in the Congress. Now that’s the truth.

and this:

And, you know, the thing that changed me forever on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was when I learned that 130 gay service people were allowed to serve and risk their lives in the first Gulf War, and all their commanders knew they were gay; they let them go out there and risk their lives because they needed them, and then as soon as the first Gulf War was over, they kicked them out. That’s all I needed to know, that’s all anybody needs to know, to know that this policy should be changed.

The incident underscores a tensions between the netroots and journalists. Hudson is a citizen journalist and opinion writer, but also an activist. It would be wrong for a journalist to interrupt someone’s speech to ask a question, even if it wasn’t meant to further an agenda. Opinion writers like Andrew Sullivan or Charles Krauthammer or Maureen Dowd are not going to interrupt a former president’s speech to ask an ideologically-driven question.

But is it wrong for an activist to interrupt Clinton? Probably not. Clinton shouldn’t expect to appear in front of activists and not take questions, even at the end. The netroots are activists with a very specific agenda. Lane is passionate about what he believes and, quite frankly, the netroots were being spun by Clinton.

But what happens when you are both a journalist and an activist? Whose ethical rules do you follow? I should confess that I know Lane and like him. I consider him to be part of the NLGJA umbrella of journalists, and he has attended and appeared at our conferences. But what happened at Netroot Nation does raise interesting ethical questions for us all.

3 Responses

  1. Do bloggers like Lane have an ethical standard? I don’t mean to be flip, but I’m not sure whether there is an ethical responsibility that parallels and traditional journalist’s ethical responsibility.

  2. That’s a good question. There is this code of ethics for bloggers:

    http://www.cyberjournalist.net/news/000215.php

    But I think Lane’s situation is different. He is an activist and, arguably, he was acting as an activist when he asked the question. But then he reported it, like a journalist.

  3. I guess it answers interesting questions unless you take seriously the idea that gay and lesbian people are actually equal to heterosexuals. Then the interesting question is the one Lane asks: why are straight “progressives” so comfortable with the fact that gays and lesbians are not full and equal citizens?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: