The recent flap over CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta’s press pass raised larger questions about the troubling relationship between journalists and the Trump presidency. Fixing the problem will take more than simply ejecting disrespectful members of the press from the White House.
Acosta’s antics are a symptom of a deeper problem created by a format that encourages person-ality-driven reporting encouraging self-promoting reporters to put themselves at the center of the story. Television’s negative impact on substantive political reporting has been supercharged by the internet and social media. Televised White House briefings and news conferences have become theaters for self-promoting journalists seeking to promote themselves.
Trump and Acosta have a love-hate relationship because they both thrive on the media attention when they clash publicly. The most recent example, which led to the revoking of Acosta’s pass, was during the November 7 press conference, when Acosta refused to give up the microphone when the president told him that he wouldn’t answer any more of his questions, the president felt were insulting.
In the guise of asking a question, Acosta accused the president of “demonizing” all migrants by broadcasting a political ad, the weekend before the midterm elections, featuring news footage of members of the Central American caravan climbing over a Mexican border wall, ignoring the fact that those migrants admitted that when they reach the US border, they will try to do the same thing.
BULLYING AND GRANDSTANDING
As has become his custom, Acosta’s grandstanding breached longstanding White House proto-cols requiring reporters to speak respectfully to the president, be courteous in turning over the microphone to their peers and behave professionally. Acosta was also accused of abusing a young White House aide when he resisted her efforts to follow Trump’s instructions to take the microphone away, which prompted another dispute over a video of that moment which the White House distributed to back its complaint.
To be sure, most reporters go about their jobs diligently, but those who crave attention resist restrictions on their prerogatives which would deny them their moments of glory in the national spotlight. They invoke the First Amendment principle of freedom of the press to support their demands for special privileges denied ordinary citizens, in order to bolster their feelings of self-importance. CNN’s legal team raised the precedent set in the 1977 DC Circuit Court of Appeals case Sherrill v. Knight, in which the court stated that when White House press facili-ties have “been made publicly available as a source of information for newsmen, the protection afforded news gathering under the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press requires that this access not be denied arbitrarily or for less than compelling reasons.”
Acosta and his supporters at CNN who are counting on his notoriety to bolster their viewer rat-ings and advertising rates apparently do not consider Acosta’s aggressiveness, snarky attacks on the president, thinly disguised as legitimate news questions, and his shameless self-promotion to be sufficiently “compelling reasons” for the White House to bar him from its press room.
To that point, the White House had always assumed that it had the inherent right to limit the size of the press pool and ensure proper decorum. But on Friday, in response to a lawsuit filed by CNN, Trump-appointed US District Court Judge Timothy Kelly temporarily restored Acosta’s White House press pass on the grounds that the cancellation of his press pass without a hearing violated Acosta’s right to due process. The judge said that his ruling does not neces-sarily mean he accepts CNN’s claim that Acosta has a First Amendment right to a White House press pass. He added that he had “no quarrel” with the argument made by White House lawyers that the First Amendment does not guarantee Acosta a right to enter the White House, nor does it require Trump to call on Acosta for another question at a press conference “ever again.”
Despite that limiting proviso, conservative legal commentator Mark Pulliam wrote that Judge Kelly’s ruling that the president and his staff cannot set their own rules for access to the White House “seems absurd because it is.”
WHITE HOUSE ANNOUNCES NEW RULES FOR REPORTERS
The White House responded to the ruling by sending CNN a letter saying that it intended to formally revoke Acosta’s press pass on Monday, because his “behavior at the November 7 press conference violated the basic standards governing such events.” That letter prompted CNN to ask Judge Kelly to schedule another court hearing to extend his temporary order that declared Acosta’s right to a press pass before it expires at the end of the month.
On Monday, however, the White House sent a second letter to CNN offering to restore Acosta’s press pass permanently on the condition that he abide by a new set of rules of conduct during press conferences that was being established for all members of the White House press corps.
The letter, which was co-signed by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and deputy chief of staff Bill Shine said: “Having received a formal reply from your counsel to our letter of November 16, we have made a final determination in this process: your hard pass is restored.”
The letter stated that from now on, each reporter who is recognized during a White House press conference has the right to ask only one question. Permission for the reporter to ask follow-up questions is purely at the discretion of the president or the White House official at the podium who is answering questions.
The reporter is required to “yield the floor” when requested by the official at the podium, which “includes, when applicable, physically surrendering the microphone.”
The letter also states that, any violations of these rules “may result in suspension or revocation” of a White House press pass.
While all the high-profile sparring over a press pass may appear to be much ado about very lit-tle, it provides each side with an opportunity to keep its side of the dispute over whether Acosta and CNN or the Trump White House are promoting fake news in the headlines.
In comments he made to reporters in the Oval Office, Trump said, “People have to behave. If they don’t listen to the rules and regulations, we’ll end up back in court, and we will win.” His press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said her team planned to “develop rules and processes to ensure fair and orderly press conferences in the future. There must be decorum at the White House,” she emphasized.
“You have to act with respect,” Trump said. “You’re at the White House, and when I see the way some of my people get treated at press conferences, it’s terrible.” He added that if mem-bers of the White House press corps refused to act appropriately, he would cut down on their access to them. “Then you won’t be very happy, because we do get good ratings,” Trump added.
When asked specifically by Fox News reporter Chris Wallace about what would happen to Acosta if there is another confrontation, Trump replied, “if he misbehaves, we’ll throw him out or we’ll stop the news conference.”
HISTORY OF THE WHITE HOUSE NEWS CONFERENCE
White House news conferences were inaugurated by President Woodrow Wilson a century ago, when newspapers were virtually the only source of news. The press conference has become progressively more obsolete as a vehicle for breaking important news because of more modern communications technologies, including radio, television, the internet and social media. Today the press conference serves mostly as a soapbox from which the administration can project its message of the day, and to provide photo-ops for networks that like to run video footage of their star reporter asking a question about the featured news topic of the day and getting the ex-pected answer. Since the press conference was already being staged mostly for show, it was in-evitable that it would be exploited by ambitious reporters like Acosta to burnish their creden-tials and raise their public profiles in order to advance their media careers.
Trump is not the first modern president to publicly complain about his treatment by the media. In 1936, when his radical policies promoting the recovery from the Great Depression stalled, Franklin D. Roosevelt complained that “85 percent” of American newspapers were against him and called the press “poisonous propaganda.” In 1942, FDR handed out a Nazi Iron Cross at a White House news conference and asked that it be given to one of his most outspoken critics, a columnist for The New York Daily News.
On the other hand, the media treated presidents during that era with much more respect than they do today. For example, they honored FDR’s request and never published a picture showing him confined to a wheelchair. They also protected John F. Kennedy’s personal secrets, includ-ing his precarious health, from public knowledge.
The beginning of the end for that era of media deference to sitting presidents came during the Vietnam War era, when it became obvious that President Lyndon Johnson had tricked the coun-try into going to war, and then deceived the public about the prospects for victory. The Wa-tergate scandal, which revealed Nixon’s criminal efforts to obstruct justice, put an end to that deference, and permanently put the future relationship between the president and the media on an adversarial basis. White House statements lost the benefit of the doubt they once enjoyed and would henceforth be viewed by reporters with suspicion.
REMEMBERING OTHER RUDE WHITE HOUSE REPORTERS
Acosta’s style is not a new or unique phenomenon in the White House press corps. ABC report-er Sam Donaldson used to scream his questions at President Ronald Reagan, who would react by smiling and pretending not to hear him. That was consistent with Reagan’s friendly public style, in contrast with Trump’s deliberately combative image. The other point was that even though Donaldson might have been bad-mannered, his questions were substantive and unbi-ased, with none of the “gotcha” grandstanding and hostility which pervades Acosta’s propagan-dized diatribes.
Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s press secretary, believes that Acosta has committed a cardinal sin for a good reporter by seeking to become the star of his stories, while depicting the presi-dent as their villain. “He has become the personification of the anti-Trump movement, and that’s not the role of a White House reporter,” Fleischer said.
He likened Acosta to the outspoken UPI reporter, Helen Thomas. She was the daughter of Leb-anese immigrants, and would ask Fleischer pro-Hezbollah questions at White House news con-ferences, such as “Does the president think that the Palestinians have a right to resist 35 years of brutal military occupation and suppression [by Israel]?”
“I loved it,” Fleischer said. “I’d let her talk all day because you could practically hear the American public disagreeing with her from the briefing room.” Acosta’s attacks fulfill the same function for Trump today. Acosta has been Trump’s favorite nemesis since he asked the then-GOP candidate for president at a May 2016 press conference if he could handle the me-dia’s scrutiny. Trump’s response was a sarcastic comment, “You’re a real beauty.” It was the start of a mutually beneficial and increasingly hostile relationship.
ACOSTA’S PROFESSIONAL RESUME
Acosta’s journalism career began with a job at a radio station in Washington, DC. He soon switched to television and went to work as a correspondent for CBS News in 2003, covering John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina. He joined CNN in 2007, specializing in political reporting. At a 2015 presidential news conference, Acosta openly challenged President Obama’s inability to come up with a strategy that would destroy ISIS, which proves that his combative journalistic style was not limited to Trump.
Fortunately, the old-fashioned school of journalism is not yet dead. There are still many work-ing reporters who keep personal political biases out of their news stories. One example is Major Garrett, White House correspondent for CBS News, who believes that reporters on the White House beat have an obligation to uphold the traditional “standard of conduct.”
Garrett told James Robbins, a commentator for USA Today, “I respect the institution and the country’s choice,” referring to the selection of a president, and noted that he does his “level best to not make myself part of story, and I think the best journalists operate that way.”
A senior member of the CNN newsroom has also reported that, “There’s some grumbling in the rank-and-file [at CNN] that this isn’t straight news. But the higher up you go, the more people like what Jim’s doing or he wouldn’t be doing it.”
Some members of the White House press corps privately expressed their disapproval of Acosta’s tactics. They consider him to be a showboat, and the reporter most likely to become part of the news story of any given day. But when the White House withdrew his press pass, critics felt obliged to stand up for him and his rights, lest they become the next reporter to be publicly lambasted by Trump when he is angered by the way they question or report on him.
A PROTÉGÉ OF DAN RATHER
Prominent veteran reporters who have come to the defense of Acosta’s aggressive tactics, most notably including former anchorman Dan Rather who was known during his career for using confrontational tactics. Rather first gained national attention for his reporting on the assassina-tion of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. In 1974, Rather was working as the CBS White House correspondent when the Watergate scandal was gaining national momentum. When Rather was about to confront President Nixon at a news conference with a Watergate-related question, Nixon angrily asked him, “Are you running for something?” to which Rather quickly retorted, “No, sir. Are you?”
While that was relatively mild compared to Trump’s current confrontations with Acosta, Ra-ther gained a reputation for being a highly aggressive reporter. It eventually landed him in trouble, when he reported in 2004 about accusations surrounding then-President George W. Bush’s service as a member of the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War era. When it emerged that the accusations were based upon forged documents, CBS forced Rather into retirement after 24 years as anchorman.
Rather never admitted that the charge he made against Bush was false, and he has been quick to praise Acosta for publicly confronting Trump. “CNN should give him a raise and a week off,” Rather said. “That’s how good he’s been.”
Trump’s hostility toward CNN increased in January 2016, after the network was first to report that as president-elect, Trump had been briefed by national security officials about the Christo-pher Steele dossier accusing him of collusion with the Russians. When Acosta, representing CNN, showed up to sit in the front row at a Trump press conference the next day, the president-elect called the network’s report on the dossier a “disgrace.” This prompted Acosta to shout out, “Since you’re attacking us, can you give us a question?” Trump refused, and then added, “Your organization is terrible.” He then called CNN “fake news” for the very first time.
Acosta would later refer to that incident, with pride, “a defining moment in American journal-ism. It was an attack on all of us, on all journalists.” He also recalled proudly that CNN presi-dent Jeff Zucker emailed him during the press conference to offer his support for Acosta be-cause he didn’t want his reporter “to be cowed by attacks that could be hard for anyone to take.”
Zucker decided to make attacks on Trump an ongoing theme of CNN’s reporting to attract more Trump opponents to join its regular audience. Zucker defended Acosta’s public confrontations with the president as “100 percent” straight news reporting, but inside the CNN newsroom, it set a whole new tone.
ORIGINS OF THE MEDIA’S ANTI-TRUMP BIAS
As a business strategy, the move was an immediate success. CNN’s viewer ratings soared, as it eagerly joined MSNBC, the Washington Post and the New York Times as a platform for Trump’s critics.
Together, they have set the standard for reporting on Trump for most of the rest of the news media. A survey of evening news programs coverage published last month by the conservative Media Research Center confirmed previous findings that 92% of their stories about the Trump administration were negative. During the previous four months, positive stories about the booming American economy due to Trump’s policies accounted for less than one percent of the 1,007 Trump-related news stories that were broadcast.
The ideologues in the White House enjoy their high-profile confrontations with Acosta just as much as CNN executives do. One example was the on-camera debate over immigration policy between Acosta and White House adviser Stephen Miller on August 2, last year. Acosta, who is the son of Cuban immigrants, took Trump’s immigration proposals personally. He claimed they violated the spirit of the famous poem by Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, which begins with, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . .”
Miller’s response was equally intense. He accused Acosta of being wrong about the history of both the Statue of Liberty and the poem, while Acosta argued simultaneously that the admin-istration’s policy was an affront to his father’s lifelong accomplishments as an immigrant. When Acosta then accused Miller of seeking to restrict legal immigration to English-speaking people from Great Britain and Australian, Miller angrily responded by asking, “Jim, have you honestly never met an immigrant from another country who speaks English outside of Great Britain and Australia?” He called Acosta’s accusation “one of the most outrageous, insulting, ignorant and foolish things you have ever said,” and accused the reporter of having a liberal “cosmopolitan bias.”
The impromptu debate over immigration policy between the reporter and the White House ad-visor became a story in its own right which dominated the next 24-hour national news cycle.
A BATTLE IN WHICH BOTH SIDES ARE WINNERS
Jim Warren, a former White House reporter for the New York Daily News, said, “You can just see Trump and Steve Bannon reveling in watching Jim snap back to Miller, and you can bet Jeff Zucker did, too.”
Ben Strauss wrote an extensive article for Politico describing Acosta’s confrontation with Mil-ler. When Strauss asked then-White House advisor Steve Bannon whether he thought Acosta was playing into Trump’s hands, he texted a one-word response: “Yes!!!!!!!”
Acosta denied the criticism that he was serving as Trump’s foil. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Don’t take the bait, you’re playing into their hands.’ So, when he calls us the enemy of the people, we say nothing? When he calls us fake news, we don’t point out that he used to say Obama wasn’t born in this country? Do we not do those things? I think that’s a cop-out, I think that’s raising the white flag and saying we’re not going to do our job anymore.”
From that point on, Strauss wrote, Acosta became Trump’s chief target and sparring partner in a running battle with CNN and its concerted campaign to discredit him. The White House was pleased to note that after the Trump-Acosta confrontations began, surveys found that 89 percent of Republicans said they trusted Trump over CNN.
ACOSTA ATTACKS TRUMP FOR REVOKING DACA
A month after the confrontation with Miller, Acosta’s anger at Trump was provoked again when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the administration’s plans to cancel President Obama’s DACA executive order, which protects young immigrants brought to this country ille-gally as children from deportation.
For the previous three weeks, the White House press secretary had refused to call on Acosta to ask a question at the daily news briefing. When he would shout out his question without being recognized, it would be ignored. But he did not despair and came prepared to the press confer-ence with a question calculated to cause the president maximum embarrassment.
Press Secretary Sanders started out by saying that after Sessions’ announced, Trump expected Congress to act to protect the DACA immigrants. In answer to questions by other reporters that followed, Sanders said that Trump would not sign a bill that only dealt the problem of the Dreamers and would insist that it also address his other immigration demands.
She then called on Acosta, who asked, reasonably, “It sounds like the president is saying, and you’re saying, that if we’re going to allow the Dreamers to stay in this country, we want a wall. Is that accurate?” Sanders responded by saying that Trump hasn’t been shy about the fact he wants a wall built on the Mexican border, as an important piece of immigration reform.
Having finally gained recognition to speak, Acosta followed up with the zinger question he had prepared: “Why did the President not come out and make this announcement himself today? Why did he leave it to his attorney general? It’s his decision. These kids—their lives are on the line because of what he is doing. Why not have him come out and make this call?” Acosta asked.
Sanders looked shocked by the hostile tone of the question. She responded by explaining that many legal scholars believed that Obama’s original DACA order was illegal because it required congressional legislation and would eventually be struck down by the courts. As a result, Sand-ers argued, it made sense for the attorney general to announce that the order would be canceled due to its legal flaws.
ACOSTA’S HERO COMPLEX
Afterwards, Acosta told Strauss that he was pleased with the national exposure his challenging question aimed at Trump had generated, even though it drew criticism, because he believes that the pushback to Trump’s policies should not be left to op-ed columns and cable news panels of commentators. “People need to see it happen in the moment,” Acosta said. Referring to Trump’s comment about those involved in the violent protest last year in Charlottesville, Vir-ginia, for and against a monument in honor of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the CNN re-porter added, “People need to see their fellow Americans, working journalists saying, ‘No, sir, there are no fine people in the Nazis.’”
Acosta said he was confident that his decision to confront the president would be justified in the future. “People are going to look back at this moment and ask each and every one of us, ‘What did you do when [Trump] was doing this in America?’ ‘What role did you play?’”
That comment clearly portrayed that Acosta sees his mission as a journalist as changing the opinions of the American people rather than merely reporting the news to them and letting them make up their own minds. Acosta’s goal appears to be duplicating the accomplishment of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in bringing down a sitting president, Richard Nixon, by ex-posing the White House conspiracy to coverup the Watergate scandal.
Acosta may have his White House press pass back, but Judge’s Kelly’s ruling does not guaran-tee that the president or his press secretary will recognize Acosta or allow him to ask his self-serving questions at White House press conferences when the news cameras are rolling.
The Trump White House probably will continue to give Acosta the prime-time exposure he craves, because he is also the perfect foil for Trump’s attacks on fake news. He is perhaps the only person in the White House press corps who is abrasive, aggressive and obnoxious enough to make his public disputes with Trump look like a fair fight.
CONTRASTING MODELS OF PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISM
Acosta also serves as Trump’s prime example of the mainstream media’s eagerness to violate its own code of journalistic ethics by deliberately distorting its reporting of the news to dis-credit the president and his presidency.
It is hard to explain why Acosta’s on-camera antics are being accorded a dignity they do not deserve, as if he is the equal of the great American journalists of the past, such as Walter Lippmann, Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.
Another model reporter was David Broder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Washing-ton Post, whose distinguished career lasted for more than 50 years. He earned the respect of his peers because of his dedication to “old school” journalistic values. While Broder did write a widely-read syndicated column in which he expressed his personal viewpoints, he was admired most for his ability to write news reports with total objectivity and impartiality. That trait has become increasingly rare among younger journalists trained in today’s highly competitive news environment.
IMPACT OF NEW TECHNOLOGY ON POLITICS AND NEWS
But the nature of news coverage and of American politics itself was revolutionized by the widespread adoption of new communications technologies over the past century. FDR was America’s first radio president. He had lost the use of his legs to polio, but using the power of radio, Roosevelt was able to reach into the living rooms of millions of families across the coun-try with his inspirational fireside talks and give them the courage to withstand the Great De-pression and World War II.
John F. Kennedy was the first American president of the television age. When he debated Rich-ard Nixon during the 1960 presidential campaign, those who listened to the debate believed that Nixon had won, but those who watched it thought that Kennedy was the winner.
By 1968, television had brought the horror of the Vietnam War into American homes in “living color,” and transformed the very nature of the national politics by showing the American peo-ple the chaos and protests which made a spectacle of the Democrat convention in Chicago.
Presidential candidates began to be chosen by the people in statewide primaries rather at con-ventions by deals made between political bosses in smoke-filled rooms. The way that Congress worked was also changed forever by the introduction of C-SPAN cameras in the House in 1979 and the Senate in 1986. Because the public was now able to watch the process live, much of the actual process of drafting legislation was moved back to Washington lobbyists. Senators and congressman only went to the floor to cast their votes or to deliver speeches to empty cham-bers, for the benefit of the C-SPAN cameras.
During the 80s, the advent of cable news created the 24-hour news cycle. The vastly increased number of channels created an increased demand for more “news” to fill the empty broadcast time. It also gave politicians more avenues to promote their agendas.
Live cable news coverage also changed the nature of presidential news conferences, encourag-ing reporters to make provocative statements masked as questions, and “spin” the news rather than cover it. Ending live televised coverage of the White House news conferences was sug-gested by Ari Fleischer and Bill Clinton’s press secretary Mike McCurry, who believed that it would make the briefings more meaningful and reduce the temptation to engage in ”gotcha” journalism. But when the Trump White House experimented with this approach last year, Jim Acosta suggested that he and his fellow reporters stage a walkout in protest.
REPORTERS SACRIFICED IMPARTIALITY FOR “THE RESISTANCE”
Another major part of the problem was the conscious decision by many members of the main-stream news media to abandon their traditional journalistic principles and join “The Re-sistance” to Trump’s presidency. Two years later, most mainstream journalists have gone too far down that road to admit that they were misled by the bogus accusations that Trump colluded with Russian, or that they had been duped by a politically motivated plot organized and paid for by the Clinton campaign and the Democrats.
The bogus accusations which originated with the Steele dossier triggered an unwarranted FBI investigation into the Trump campaign endorsed by senior officials of the Obama administra-tion officials and its intelligence chiefs.
When the Clinton-backed plot to discredit Trump in the eyes of voters failed, and he won the 2016 election, the anti-Trump conspirators enlisted the help of their friends in the mainstream media to cover up their wrongdoing. Then they urged Special Counsel Robert Mueller to re-double his efforts to find any evidence that might justify the investigation by incriminating the president.
TOO LATE TO TURN BACK
At this point, the corporate leadership of the mainstream media is so invested in the anti-Trump narrative and business model that reporters who are having second thoughts about the accuracy of that narrative and its recurring predictions that Trump’s presidency is on the verge of col-lapse, would be risking their jobs to express those doubts publicly. But the end may be in sight. There are signs that Mueller is winding up his investigation, with no indication that it has found any evidence that Trump colluded with the Russians or was guilty of criminal obstruction of justice by trying to block the investigation.
If all Mueller has found is evidence of “process” crimes unrelated to the main charges against Trump, then the raison d’etre for “The Resistance” will collapse from the weight of its own lies. Democrats, who will shortly take over control of the House, will lose their excuse for con-tinuing with their obstructionist tactics, and perhaps the atmosphere of extreme partisan hostili-ty which has dominated Washington for the past two years may finally come to an end.