Peril is coming from all sides, apparently. President Trump’s attacks on the media are stirring people to heckle and even threaten the “fake news” media. And now comes this from Todd S. Purdum in The Atlantic: “Jim Acosta’s Dangerous Brand of Performance Journalism.” He argues that Acosta, CNN’s high-profile chief White House correspondent, is too much show and not enough tell: “The last thing Donald Trump — or the press, or the public — needs is another convenient villain in the performative arena of the long-running reality show that is his administration. Acosta’s broadside 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.”
That’s a nicely articulated, but unpersuasive, piece of argument. At the center of Purdum’s case against Acosta is his much-headlined clash with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders over whether she agreed with the president that the media is the “enemy of the people.” True, Acosta amped up the drama in the moment by positioning the matter not as a simple question — Do you believe the media is the enemy of the people? — but as a plea:
I think it would be a good thing if you were to say right here at this briefing that the press, the people who are gathered in this room right now, are doing their jobs every day, asking questions of officials like the ones you brought forward earlier, are not the enemy of the people. I think we deserve that.
The tactic worked, as Sanders inventoried an underwhelming list of media gripes and steadfastly refused to aver that the media was not the enemy of the people. Sanders instead sought to prove that Trump was justifiably “frustrated.” Her case was transparently laughable.
It was a significant moment in the Trump administration and in American history. Here was a fully empowered White House press secretary asserting, in essence, that the press was the enemy of the people. Unlike Ivanka Trump — who last week placed herself in the not-enemy camp — Sanders just couldn’t bring herself to break with the president on the matter.
That revelation was not good enough for Purdum, whose article said that, even as Acosta is speaking truth to power, he’s “also amplifying the president’s anti-press campaign.” In a column about how the media is playing into Trump’s hands, our colleague Dana Milbank wrote that “little was gained” from Acosta’s work in the briefing room that day. Purdum scolds:
I once read some good advice from a journalist — was it Nicholas Lemann? — who suggested [that] no profile-writer should ask a hostile question if he didn’t believe it would produce a meaningful, revealing answer. Did Acosta really think his interrogatory to Sanders would? Did he think it would make the CNN suits sit up and say howdy?
Who cares what Acosta thought? The truth is that he did extract a “meaningful, revealing answer” — a meaningfully chilling answer.
Yes, in extracting that answer, Acosta drew attention to himself, which drew Purdum’s dissent: “Whenever a reporter who has not been kidnapped by terrorists, shot by an assailant, or won a big prize, becomes an actor in her own story, she has lost the fight,” writes the veteran reporter. But Trump is the guy who made Acosta — and the rest of the “fake news” media — actors in their own story, by forever bashing reporters, seeking to diminish their public-trust levels, cheerleading their derision at rallies, and so on. In yet another example of how far back this administration has set the discussion of national priorities, it has made “the degradation of the First Amendment” one of the top concerns of the current White House. All Acosta was doing was quizzing a top aide about a top initiative. Very traditional.
Instead of contemplating Acosta’s “dangerous” ways, it’s far better to encourage replication of his work. Other Trump appointees too — both at the White House and at federal agencies — should be asked whether they believe the enemy-of-the-people rhetoric. Whether the question is asked with Acosta-style theatrics or Purdum-style decorum, who cares?