These are times that try a White House reporter’s soul. Jim Acosta hasn’t kept quiet about what’s been troubling his.
CNN’s senior White House reporter has been frustrated by many things: the curtailment of live broadcasts of the press secretary’s daily briefings; the lack of substantive answers from the administration; the alleged “blackballing” of CNN (or maybe just of Acosta), by all of the president’s spokespeople, among others.
Other reporters share some of Acosta’s irritation. The difference is, Acosta has been outspoken about his. At a time when CNN is under attack by President Trump and his supporters, Acosta has been fighting back.
He has said on the air that White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s unresponsive answers were rendering him “just kind of useless” as a credible source; that the ever-briefer briefings have become “basically pointless”; that covering this White House has at times been like “covering bad reality television.”
The other day, after Trump once again denounced CNN as “fake news” during brief remarks to the media in Poland, Acosta tweeted that the event was “a fake news conference” because the president’s response was prompted by a reporter who had interviewed for a White House job.
He has repeatedly needled Spicer on Twitter, too: “I can’t show you a picture of Sean,” he tweeted, over a photo of his ankles, during a blacked-out briefing on June 19. “So here is a look at some new socks I bought over the wknd.”
Another, on June 12: “As he often does, [Spicer] avoided taking questions from CNN today.” This included a sarcastic hashtag: #courage.
Acosta’s remarks aren’t just blunt; they’re unusual. Reporters are supposed to report, not opine. Yet Acosta’s disdain has flowed openly, raising a question about how far a reporter — supposedly a neutral arbiter of facts, not a commenter on them — can and should go.
“I think I’m just covering a story, honestly,” Acosta said in a call from Germany, where he was covering the president. “When the president of the United States calls the press ‘fake news’ and ‘the enemy of the American people,’ ” he added, “I think that’s when you have to get tough and ask the hard questions.”
Of course, Trump and Spicer haven’t held back, either. In an interview, Spicer denounced Acosta in some of the harshest terms a press secretary has used — at least in public — to refer to a reporter. “If Jim Acosta reported on Jim Acosta the way he reports on us, he’d say he hasn’t been very honest,” Spicer said. “I think he’s gone well beyond the role of reporter and steered into the role of advocate. He’s the prime example of a [reporter in a] competitive, YouTube, click-driven industry,” Spicer added. “He’s recognized that if you make a spectacle on the air then you’ll get more airtime and more clicks. . . . If I were a mainstream, veteran reporter, I’d be advocating for him to knock it off. It’s hurting the profession.”
Acosta, 46, has been a prominent face at CNN for the past decade, covering the last three presidential campaigns, President Obama’s two terms and other major stories. He was a reporter at CBS News before joining CNN, and worked for TV stations in Chicago, Dallas and Knoxville before that. He started his broadcasting career as a radio reporter for WMAL-AM in Washington.
Despite his run-ins with Spicer and constant jeering from Trump supporters, Acosta seems to be relishing the fight. “I’m having the time of my life right now,” he said. “This is the biggest story of my life. I’m like a kid in a candy store.”
Acosta’s clashes with the administration have such a relatively long history that it’s difficult to sort cause from effect these days. Spicer effectively blames Acosta, without mentioning him by name, when he suggests that live audio and video coverage of the briefings was curtailed because of “grandstanding” by some reporters. The restrictive policy, in turn, prompted Acosta to pepper Spicer with questions about it: “Why not turn the cameras on, Sean?” he asked repeatedly on June 27. This, in turn, led to more criticism of Acosta.
Trump first mixed it up with the CNN reporter during the presidential campaign last year. Pressed by Acosta to account for his unfulfilled promise to donate money to veterans organizations, the then-Republican candidate replied acidly, “I’ve seen you on TV. You’re a real beauty.”
President-elect Trump tangled with him again in a tense exchange in January that concluded with Trump branding Acosta as “rude” and CNN, once more, as “fake news.”
A curious sidelight to all this has been the relatively tepid support Acosta has received from his fellow White House journalists. Only a few have publicly spoken out in support of him. There have been no walkouts or calls for boycotting the briefings (although Acosta has suggested “collective action” to get the cameras back). The White House Correspondents’ Association has confined its agitation to behind-the-scenes negotiations with Spicer and several short, general statements.
In fact, the pushback against Acosta from some quarters of the media has been more striking. On a recent Fox News segment, for example, former Fox News White House reporter Ed Henry said Acosta’s on-air commentary had “crossed the line” into opinion.
“He’s overdoing this,” Henry said, crossing the line into opinion himself. “If you’re going to be a reporter and going to be a correspondent, his opinions are now no longer coming from pundits. It’s coming from White House correspondents.”
CNN, understandably, sees things a bit differently. “Jim Acosta is a fantastic reporter, a great White House reporter,” said Acosta’s boss, CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist.
Feist likens Acosta to Sam Donaldson, the legendarily feisty former ABC newsman, and makes no excuses for Acosta’s pointed comments. “Jim is as tenacious now with Donald Trump as president as he was when Barack Obama was president,” Feist said. “If you look at the reporting he did in the Obama White House, you’ll find he’s the same Jim Acosta.”
In fact, Acosta didn’t go easy on Trump and Spicer’s predecessors; his questioning of Obama press secretary Josh Earnest and Obama himself was often highlighted in conservative media accounts and in Republican National Committee emails. During the IRS scandal, for instance, he asked Earnest whether the White House’s claim that it had lost important emails was like saying “the dog ate my homework.” He also pressed Obama on his characterization of the Islamic State as “the J.V. team” and the president’s contention that he hadn’t underestimated the terror organization. “Why can’t we take out these bastards?” Acosta asked.
Acosta said that today the president and the issues have changed but that he hasn’t. “This is not a crusade,” he said. “This is not partisan. This is journalism. We’re trying to hold them to account.’”