Why you should care
Because this tit for tat could lead to more journalistic restrictions or a whole new playing field.
Jim Acosta has something extra to be thankful about this Thanksgiving. A judge on Friday, November 16, ordered President Trump to restore the CNN White House correspondent’s press pass, at least temporarily. This is just the first legal proceeding involving the network’s lawsuit over the matter, and it could be months before it comes to trial.
Most journalists remember when they “caught the bug,” whether it was nailing their first scoop or writing a piece that went viral. CNN’s Jim Acosta had a rather fitting first big break. While working for his school newspaper, he had to investigate why someone had painted over a Pink Floyd mural. Some digging revealed, according to Politico, that a French teacher had wanted to paint the Statue of Liberty there instead.
Who was Acosta to stand between an educator and Lady Liberty — a theme that has recurred throughout his career? At a press briefing in 2017 after Trump announced he was phasing out DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), Acosta — whose father was a Cuban refugee — quoted the poem found at the bottom of the statue, “Give me your tired, your poor,” to senior policy adviser Stephen Miller. He was defending the Obama-era directive that allowed the children of illegal immigrants to become eligible for work permits.
Acosta’s comment led to a heated exchange with Miller, one of many he’s engaged in as CNN’s chief White House correspondent. Then, during a press briefing last week, Acosta tried to ask a question about a migrant caravan moving from Central America toward the U.S. as Trump tried to move on to another subject. When a female White House intern tried to remove the microphone from Acosta’s hand, he held on to it. “Pardon me, ma’am,” he said, and continued asking his question.
Though many defended Acosta in this situation, some traditional reporters argue his stance is generally attention-seeking in a way that magnifies Trump’s anti-media campaign.
The White House later revoked his White House press badge.
Acosta’s arm looks like it brushed the intern’s arm in a video tweeted by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who condemned the physical conduct. The outcry on social media pointed to the likely doctoring of the footage, and Time magazine reported that the video was edited by Paul Joseph Watson, who is connected to the right-wing conspiracy website InfoWars, which Watson denied. The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), meanwhile, urged the White House to return Acosta’s badge, but there has been no reversal. Yesterday, CNN and Acosta went a step further, filing a joint lawsuit against Trump and five aides.
CNN’s Brian Stelter called this a “historic moment for press freedom,” noting how specific guidelines exist surrounding how press credentials are assigned and revoked. The lawsuit seeks to restore Acosta’s access, invoking the first and fifth amendments. Though Acosta was specifically targeted, Stelter highlighted that anybody could be next — a point Trump himself reinforced with his comment: “It could be others also.”
Though many defended Acosta in this situation, some traditional reporters argue his stance is generally attention-seeking in a way that magnifies Trump’s anti-media campaign. In 2017, Politico’s Ben Strauss wrote that Acosta’s exchange over DACA had “cemented [his] undisputed role as the chief antagonist for a network that styles itself as Trump’s chief antagonist, a sparring partner for the administration in the unscripted reality TV show that is the daily briefing.” By grandstanding, Acosta had committed the “cardinal sin of traditional journalism,” embedding himself into the story, Strauss wrote. Todd Purdum echoed this in The Atlantic in August, saying that such a broadside by Acosta “blurs the line between reporting and performance, between work and war, at a time when journalists have a greater obligation than ever to demonstrate that what they do is real, and matters — and is not just part of the passing show.”
Others say Acosta speaks truth to power at a time when accountability is desperately needed. “[He] is simply doing his job in a White House that thwarts journalists at every step,” says Steven Petrow, an opinion columnist at USA Today. “I think there’s a lesson to be learned from him — and others, like April Ryan. Do not be cowed by the powers that be. Persist in finding the truth.” Trump has called Ryan, a veteran White House correspondent, a “loser” and “nasty.”
Peter Baker, of The New York Times, tweeted a similar point of view, noting that “this is something I’ve never seen since I started covering the White House in 1996. Other presidents did not fear tough questioning.”
Trump @PressSec confirms that White House has suspended the hard pass of a reporter because it doesn't like the way he does his job. This is something I've never seen since I started covering the White House in 1996. Other presidents did not fear tough questioning.— Peter Baker (@peterbakernyt) November 8, 2018
While Trump’s action does transcend the norm, there are plenty of historical examples of hostility between the press and the presidency. Cue the 1974 Houston press conference in which CBS White House correspondent Dan Rather questioned President Nixon around the time of the Watergate scandal. “Are you running for something?” Nixon retorted, sparking Rather’s reply, “No, sir. Are you?” Contentious for the time period, the tussle sparked letters and phone calls from angry Nixon supporters. Beyond Nixon, relations between Bill Clinton and the press were characterized in a 1993 Vanity Fair article as hitting “what may have been their post-Watergate low” and George W. Bush’s terms with the press have been described as “prickly.”
“No president has ever liked his press coverage,” says Mike McCurry, former press secretary under the Clinton administration. Even the “champion” of the free press, Thomas Jefferson, complained at times. “Getting kicked around in the press goes with the job,” McCurry says. But when someone tries to thwart the role of the free press? That’s where “the danger flags need to fly,” says McCurry.
If anything, the Acosta-Trump exchange is a push for journalists to “hang together, or else you’ll hang separately,” warns freelance journalist Melissa Chan. “As someone who has had my press credentials denied by authoritarian China, I never thought I’d see this crap happen in the U.S.,” she tweeted. But Chan also believes this will prove to be but a blip in the news cycle because people are too busy or exhausted to be outraged by politics.
McCurry thinks the rules for gatekeeping should change. Boldly — for a former White House press secretary, at least — he says: “I don’t think the White House should be in charge of who gets ‘hard passes’ to enter the White House to cover the president and the presidency.” Instead, the WHCA should decide who gets credentials, he says, but notes that the WHCA hasn’t always been the most effective of professional organizations. “The price we pay for that is the current one: A tough and hard-hitting reporter has been declared persona non grata by the White House press operation.”
McCurry thinks it will take organized resistance by the press, and the WHCA in particular, to establish a new set of procedures. Perhaps that’s exactly what the people behind CNN’s lawsuit are counting on.