The White House was restricting media access, so a persistent (or pushy) TV journalist developed a habit of shouting questions without being called on.
The year was 1987, and the journalist was ABC's Sam Donaldson, but the sentence above could just as easily describe the year 2017 and the journalist Jim Acosta of CNN.
At the lone news conference Donald Trump held between his election in November and inauguration in January, Trump trashed CNN while refusing to take a question from Acosta, the network's representative at that event.
“Sir, since you're attacking us, can you give us a question?” Acosta interjected at one point.
“No, I'm not going to give you a question,” Trump replied. “I'm not going to give you a question. You are fake news.”
More recently, White House press secretary Sean Spicer has scaled way back on televised briefings and essentially stopped fielding questions from CNN. But Acosta has not stopped asking. During an off-camera session on Monday, for instance, Acosta interrupted Spicer to ask a health-care question.
“There’s no camera on, Jim,” Spicer shot back, suggesting that Acosta was grandstanding.
“Maybe we should turn the cameras on, Sean,” Acosta answered. “Why don’t we turn the cameras on?”
Thirty years ago, the press corps' complaint was not about on- or off-camera briefings but about President Ronald Reagan's inaccessibility. Reagan sometimes went several months without taking reporters' questions, so Donaldson started hollering inquiries whenever the president appeared in public.
“Donaldson has been both praised and panned for his aggressive reporting on a distanced president,” the Christian Science Monitor wrote in April 1987, “for shouting questions at Reagan in a megaphone voice that can be heard even above the helicopter rotors when the Reagans take off for Camp David. Recently the rest of the press has been shouting at the president, too.”
“The reason we yell at Reagan in the Rose Garden is that's the only place we see him,” Donaldson told the New York Times in October of that year.
Acosta embraces comparisons to Donaldson.
“I grew up watching Sam,” he said. “So I am certainly following his lead. This is all about openness, transparency and holding the politicians accountable. I see their refusal to call on me as a badge of honor.”
Trump's White House is not following the lead of Reagan's however. Read what Reagan's press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, told the Monitor about Donaldson and just try to imagine Spicer saying something similar about Acosta:
Sam is one of the best. He's a serious student of the issues, always inquisitive about the facts, and aggressive in their pursuit. But I think the most praiseworthy of Sam's traits is the fact that he's always relevant. I mean, he asks questions that are germane and central to the issue.
Sam often has a degree of confidence that allows him to report a story just based on his own knowledge. And there aren't many reporters who have that confidence, and who are right.
Now read this passage from the Times. Again, try to imagine Spicer expressing similar sentiments:
Marlin Fitzwater, the president's spokesman, dismisses as “nonsense” the theory that aides fear having a news conference. He said, however, that reporters had a “legitimate” complaint about the lack of news conferences.
“It's been tough for us to handle because of Iran-contra,” he explained, noting that the final report on the congressional inquiry would not be out until the end of this month. “We made a conscious decision not to talk to the press because we didn't want to add to the testimony. But from a press relations standpoint, we paid a price.”
The Trump White House has argued that its media restrictions are no worse than those imposed by predecessors and that journalists are overreacting to the recent shift toward off-camera briefings.
“The reality is that we’ve followed the same practice as past administrations,” Spicer told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham last week.
The relative severity of access limitations is debatable, but Spicer has a point. Every administration restricts the press in some way that raises reporters' ire.
But attitudes matter, too, and therein lies the critical difference. Even as the Reagan White House stonewalled the press, its spokesman was transparent about the strategy, acknowledged the legitimacy of journalists' complaints, and spoke respectfully about the most hard-nosed member of their ranks.
The Trump White House displays none of the same grace. If today's media restrictions feel different, perhaps that is why.