Newsletter: What’s Jim Acosta doing?

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Credit: Gage Skidmore

This is the opening comment from my weekly newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

Jim Acosta is on a crusade, but it’s unclear what it’s about.

The vaguely George Clooney-esque White House reporter for CNN has been causing a huge ruckus in Washington with his clashes with the Trump administration. After refusing to give up his microphone during a Trump press conference in which he badgered the president, Acosta’s permanent press credentials were revoked — and now he and CNN are suing the White House.

The White House’s argument for revoking his credentials was nonsense. It claimed that Acosta lost his pass for “placing his hands” on the intern who tried to grab his mic, and to make the case it released a video doctored by an unhinged British conspiracy theorist. Acosta did lightly touch the intern, but it wasn’t any kind of assault, as the White House has implied. Fortunately CNN, which is suing both on First and Fifth amendment (due process) grounds, has a strong legal case for getting Acosta’s credentials back.

It should go without saying that if Trump can’t stand Acosta, he’d be better off calling on him less frequently instead of trying to kick him out of the White House press corps based on a lie. But, assuming Acosta gets his credentials back, he should really take this moment to reflect on what he’s been doing lately and if he wants to keep doing it. Because I don’t get it.

For years, Acosta has has locked horns with Trump and his press secretaries over their mendacity and their attacks on the press. But Acosta doesn’t just ask his questions. He explicitly frames them as a “challenge.” He speaks theatrically about the spirit of American democracy. He talks over and cuts off his interlocutors. He refuses to ask one question, taking away time from other reporters with follow-ups that yield no meaningful answers. He demands that the administration take back its criticism of the press. Once, in a move that made him resemble a member of Code Pink more than a reporter, he shouted at the president from the back of the crowdat a tax anniversary event, causing audience members to shush him! In short, Acosta has sought to be a nuisance.

I struggle to understand his endgame here. Is he hoping that his stunts will get the administration to finally acknowledge that it lies? To apologize for lying? To even stop lying? Because nobody with a shred common sense would think that’s possible. Deception is a key political strategy of the Trump administration, and it’s carried out with pride, not regret.

Of course Acosta and all reporters should use questions and follow-up questions to point out falsehoods and place pressure on the Trump administration in a bid for accountability. But Acosta is trying to go one step further than that, seemingly believing that if he vexes the administration enough they might break down and make a concession.

That tactic is not only failing — it is clearly backfiring. It neatly plays into Trump’s narrative that the media harbors a grudge against him and is uninterested in treating him fairly. Trump has license to say that CNN reporters never spoke to Obama the way they speak to him. And the optics are terrible. If I think Acosta looks kind of annoying during press briefings, then there’s no doubt that Trump’s supporters, who are already primed to believe anything the president says, will see his antics as evidence of unforgivable anti-Trump bias in the press. There’s a reason that Trump press staffers give each other high fives after they walk away from the podium after sparring with Acosta.

I share Acosta’s rage. But if he’s decided that Trump’s propaganda operation deserves more than questioning he’s better off pursuing that goal outside of the White House press corps. He’s chosen to work in a sector of media that relies on politesse and deference to acquire information, and he’s running into the limits of that. I wouldn’t want to deal with that either, which is why I wouldn’t want to work as a White House correspondent. Acosta should take on a position that involves more overt analysis and opinion, or investigative work, or leave the media and become an activist. Right now he he’s hurting his own cause, and the story has moved away from Trump’s falsehoods and toward the melodrama of Trump vs CNN.

And maybe that’s the point. A Politico Magazine article reports that the higher-ups at CNN seem to love the skirmishes, which is why Acosta has gotten the green light to keep doing it. “There is also a view inside the network’s newsroom that Acosta has been given the latitude, perhaps even the implicit assignment, to turn the briefing room into a personal editorial page because it is good television and reaffirms CNN’s integral role in the ongoing drama,” the article says. That’s shocking, but not surprising, for an outlet that confessed to giving Trump massively disproportionate airtime in the run-up to the 2016 election because it was so watchable.

In this reading, CNN is in some ways of the same ilk as Trump: prioritizing ratings over pursuit of truth.

The rest of the newsletter, with reading recommendations and more, is here.

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