Critics of CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta might be surprised to learn the following: “I don’t believe reporters are supposed to be the story. That’s how I was trained,” writes Acosta in his new book, “The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America.”
All that training may not have contemplated a President Trump. Over two-plus years fighting the most anti-media presidential administration in memory, Acosta has become not just a story but also a symbol, a punching bag, a grandstanding advocate and, now, the author of a New York Times bestseller.
Readers are discovering just how defensive Acosta has become about his image as a grandstander. Here is at least a partial inventory of the moments in which he addresses this fame of his:
— Page 68: On the nomination of Alexander Acosta (no relation) to be Labor Department secretary, Acosta once joked on air to colleague Wolf Blitzer that “Secretary Acosta sounds pretty good.” In “The Enemy of the People,” Acosta writes, “This, I suppose, is where some of the accusations against me for ‘showboating’ come into play.”
— Page 121: After Trump suggested that there might be tape recordings of his meetings with fired FBI director James B. Comey, Acosta pressed then-press secretary Sean Spicer for answers. On social media, Acosta used the hashtag #wherearethetapes to hound the White House about the affair. “I suppose there are some folks out there who would call this #grandstanding, but social media sites were now part of the terrain for reporters covering the presidency,” writes Acosta.
— Page 124: In June 2017, Spicer prohibited televised coverage of certain White House press briefings. News organizations complied with the policy, which Acosta felt was a mistake. “Cue the accusations of grandstanding, but, as I’ve said repeatedly, call me all the names you want. This was important. This was about standing up for our ability to cover the White House,” he writes.
— Page 293: In August 2018, Acosta presented press secretary Sarah Sanders with the opportunity to aver that the media is not the enemy of the people — in contrast to what President Trump has said. Sanders dodged the request and complained about her own treatment by the media. In “Enemy of the People,” Acosta looks back:
Folks weren’t patting me on the back as I exited the Briefing Room that day, but I wasn’t looking for anybody’s approval. If people think I was showboating or grandstanding in my exchange with Sanders, they can shove it. This was all about preserving a dark chapter in our nation’s history.
“Shove it,” huh? Grandstanding comes in handy when defending grandstanding.
For months and months following Trump’s inauguration, media types debated just how to cover this mendacious president and his platoon of like-minders. Some folks favored ignoring shiny objects (basically, the president’s tweets); others said lies must be called “lies”; others denounced the free publicity stemming from cable-news coverage; and one other — Jay Rosen of New York University — advocated sending interns to the junk-food press briefings, because “the real story is elsewhere.”
Regardless of how long Trump remains in the White House, the media will likely never perfect coverage of a White House with no factual rudder whatsoever. It hasn’t had enough practice.
But whatever the consensus, it’s now clear that having a somewhat obnoxious, pain-in-the-butt veteran journalist unafraid to jam questions down the throat of administration officials is a critical part of the mix. That’s because liars should never feel comfortable at their lecterns. They should feel pursued as they themselves pursue their fraudulent duties.
This, Acosta has managed to do, whether the topic has been honesty, media attacks, immigration or affairs. With Acosta in the room, chances were always much higher that Trump aides would be forced to equivocate and stammer as they defended another presidential whopper. In May 2018, for instance, he asked Sanders about contradictions in the official line about Trump’s knowledge of a payment to Stormy Daniels, the adult-film actress who claimed to have had an affair with Trump years ago. “If I could just follow up on — you said on March 7, ‘There was no knowledge of any payments from the president, and he’s denied all of these allegations.’ Were you lying to us at the time, or were you in the dark?” asked Acosta.
Not long after that briefing, Acosta writes in “The Enemy of the People,” the frequency of the press briefings started to fall. These days, briefings don’t happen at all. “Conservative critics blamed the media, and guys like me, for this trend, but the responsibility lies squarely with the president and his press secretary,” writes Acosta. “My sense is that Sanders was coming to the realization that she could no longer come out to the briefings on a regular basis and still maintain the last shred of credibility she had left.” The Mueller report stripped her of even that.
The complete demise of Sanders’s credibility is one signal that the media is making some headway as it trials-and-errors its way toward a Trump-coverage paradigm. Padding press briefings with lies, exaggerations and personal slights, after all, should be an undoable job.
Acosta suggests, too, that exposing all the shiftiness might not have happened if interns had been sitting in the briefing-room seats. “I would say that in the old days of the briefings, when we used to have them, when the press secretary would go to the podium and not give us a straight story, I think it does help to have a correspondent there or a seasoned reporter in the room who can sniff that out and, when necessary, interject and say, ‘Hold on a second, you’re not giving us a straight answer here,’” Acosta tells the Erik Wemple Blog.
And cover the tweets, too, he says. “I know it’s a criticism of me, but I err on the side of not sticking our heads in the sand,” he tells this blog. “It’s how I’m wired.”