Anyone who has cared for a 2-year-old knows a basic parenting/babysitting truth: Ignore tantrums, as responding to them will merely reinforce the bad behavior. So why does the press continue to reward hecklers at political events?
Newly-minted GOP veep candidate Paul Ryan got a taste of 2-year-old behavior being exercised by grown people when he made a campaign appearance at the Iowa State Fair this week. As Ryan, a U.S. representative from Wisconsin, tried to connect with the crowd with a little Wisconsin-Iowa bonding over Midwestern fair memories and the Green Bay Packers, hecklers yelled out things like "Are you going to cut Medicare?!" and other questions (not really meant to elicit an actual answer) at the young House Budget Committee chairman. A woman who appeared ready to jump up on the stage was escorted away.
There was a time when being heckled or pelted with food was news. When Richard Nixon was the target of eggs and tomatoes in Michigan in 1960, perhaps. Or when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's motorcade was hit with tomatoes and shoes during a visit to Egypt this year (and an Egyptian official was actually hit with a tomato). Sometimes, heckling—ill-mannered that it is—is reflective of a broader discontent that is newsworthy. But we have gotten to the point where any disruption is treated as though it's trouble for a candidate, when it may merely be simply a display of the fruits of poor parenting, decades later.
The media, whose bias is not towards a candidate or party, but towards conflict, rewards these people, often at the expense of substantive reporting. The allegedly spontaneous disruptions at town hall meetings—some of which were perpetrated by people who either didn't live in the district, or who claimed to be nonpolitical but actually held local party positions—headlined coverage of the meetings. And politicians, sadly, were so determined to appear responsive that they let the boors continue (the exception being irascible Congressman Barney Frank, who famously told a screamer at one of his town hall meetings that talking to her was like talking to a dining room table).
It's hard to make healthcare policy, whether you're Barack Obama or Paul Ryan. It's easy to be a crank and an agitator. There will always be hecklers. But we don't have to encourage them.