Melissa Chan is a national and foreign affairs reporter based in Berlin. She is a collaborator with the Global Reporting Centre and a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Watching the video of CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta parrying with President Trump, I recognized the scene and couldn’t help but feel how familiar it was — the testy exchange with a supercilious official, the back and forth, the dogged reporter arguing over the very basics because the government was insisting night is day and day is night.
Acosta was questioning the president’s use of the word “invasion” to describe the migrant caravan making its way through Mexico to the U.S. border, and Trump had decided to move on. Nevertheless, Acosta persisted, even when a White House intern reached for the microphone in his hand. That became grounds for the administration’s suspension of his press pass, citing Acosta for “placing his hands on a young woman” as the last straw.
The incident reminded me of some of the experiences I had at Chinese news conferences during my five years in Beijing. Officials would lie with a straight face, but even Chinese apparatchiks did not sink to the depths that press secretary Sarah Sanders did this past week by sharing a doctored video of an allegedly aggressive Acosta.
As someone who had my press credentials denied by China, an authoritarian country, I never thought I would see the United States revoke a reporter’s entry to the White House. America is not China, but comparisons don’t have to be perfect for them to be useful.
The White House is employing strategies I’m more familiar with outside of the United States. It has painted Acosta as uncommonly aggressive, an outlier whom the rest of the press corps should not respect. The image of the out-of-line reporter was the exact narrative Chinese state media propagated about me when I was expelled. It is a tactic and a powerfully effective one because the best kind of propaganda has a shred of truth to it. There is no doubt Acosta has repeatedly challenged the president, and, yes, he has interrupted Trump. Their skirmish Wednesday was hardly the first. Grasping onto this, the White House has spun it into an Acosta caricature, casting suspicion not only on his reporting but also his very person.
When a powerful government — whether it’s China or the United States — assassinates the character of someone, everything that person does is suddenly called into question. Those sympathetic to this administration already despise Acosta, but for those confused and uncertain, they may reason that, surely, he must have done something wrong. I understand this because that was China’s method, too. Writing about me, one of the country’s mouthpieces, the Global Times, said, “If a foreign reporter cannot stay in China, we can only assume that he or she has done something [to] cross the line.”
That whiff of suspicion follows you wherever you go, as I found out when I learned that Chinese diplomats would mention me when running through their talking points, telling visiting media delegations what an emotional and belligerent wreck I was (you can see here, also an obviously gendered sketch).
In my thread on Twitter earlier this week, I warned where this could go: The administration singles out Acosta today, but can go after other journalists tomorrow. I am reminded of the Chinese idiom, “killing the chicken to scare the monkeys,” meaning to make an example out of someone to deter others. It was on many fellow reporters’ lips when I exited China, and I see parallels here. How will the White House correspondents react? My feeling is that journalists must hang together, or else they’ll hang apart.
I am disappointed at some of the pieces that my peers have written about the Acosta affair. From Poynter to the BBC, they have focused more on the exchange and how Acosta ought to have conducted himself rather than the revocation of his credentials. I agree the moment wasn’t Acosta’s best. But the United States is supposed to be a country with a free press, and that includes crabby journalists.
What concerns me is how quickly we will move on from this incident. We have been in a period of what researcher Tim Dixon calls the “exhausted majority” for some time now. This, too, I saw in China — ordinary people with busy lives, with little energy left to worry about their government leaders.
People wonder how one billion people can live in an authoritarian state. The uncomfortable reality is that these countries look and feel a lot like democracies. You don’t experience daily oppression. You can still buy your daily Starbucks, take your trips to the movies and go on park outings with your family. Of course, as a journalist, part of my job was to observe what happened when the state did touch normal lives, and to report on the heartbreaking consequences of unreliable or broken legal and political structures on powerless people.
I cannot emphasize enough how far apart the United States and China are politically. Yet, I know I am not alone among foreign correspondents who find our overseas experience suddenly more instructive when we observe some of the developments happening domestically.
In China, what I witnessed outraged me. I used the outrage as fuel for my challenging reporting work. But that trauma had its toll on me. Now I see this outrage in the United States, and I wonder how weary American reporters must be and, in turn, how tired the country must collectively feel. Will reporters and citizens, bit by bit, disconnect? I feel as if the stakes are too high to surrender, though fair warning for those who dig their heels in: You will all emerge a little scarred, a little damaged after this.