Jim Acosta revisited

In last week’s newsletter I found myself in the unusual position of arguing that a reporter should be less adversarial toward Trump.

The crux of my argument was not that Jim Acosta’s violations of White House decorum were unseemly, but that that they were ineffective. I argued that his stunts would hand a victory to Trump’s agenda to paint the media as treating him unfairly without obtaining anything meaningful in return.

Upon reflection, fueled in part by some pushback online, I suppose I don’t care that much about how Acosta chooses to comport himself.

It could be argued that even if Acosta abided by the rules, Trumpland would still be convinced that CNN is fake news, and so the costs of his activism is marginal. And then there’s also a case to be made that while Acosta is not going to win a concession from the administration, he could, theoretically, inspire other White House reporters to be fiercer. That’s a good cause — the White House Correspondents’ Association is such a spineless institution that it has decided this year to break from its tradition of inviting a comedian to its annual dinner. Let that sink in: In the Trump era, the organization has chosen to try to avoid controversy and make the president feel less worried about being roasted.

So let me get to the big unspoken impulse that drove my initial post: I’m angry about inconsistency.

I’m angry that Acosta’s behavior in all likelihood would never have happened had Ted Cruz won the presidency and pursued an extremely similar policy agenda and quested to sate the toxic impulses of the same reactionary constituents because he knows how to do it with a veneer of civility. And I’m angry because White House reporters like Acosta have declined to act this way in the past as presidents, both Democratic and Republican, have run circles around credulous, flat-footed reporters.

A lot of liberals like to cry out that this Trump’s lying is “not business as usual” or that “this is not normal.” This kind of rhetoric often obscures continuity. Yes, Trump has led us to new frontiers in untruth, but let’s be clear: lying is business as usual for politicians. Yes, Trump’s white nationalism has broken some new ground, but the Southern Strategy has prevailed for decades.

In recent years before Trump took office journalists have failed to aggressively push back against falsehoods used to justify atrocities like the Iraq War, gutting protections for the poor, protecting bankers from prosecution, preventing universal healthcare and inaction on climate change. Where were the Acostas then? The flagrancy of a Trump lie deserves an adversarial press; the sophistication of a Bush or Obama or Paul Ryan lie deserves one just as much.

So my more considered response to Acosta’s behavior is: either get in the face of every lying politician you see — even the ones who veil their deception and their misdeeds with great skill — or do what you usually do.

A lot of journalists seem to be taking the wrong lesson from the Trump era. As I argued in an essay about Ben Smith’s widely lauded piece on the supposed decline of insider journalism, the Trump era shouldn’t be making journalists nostalgic for coziness between the press and the political class in older times — it should be making them realize that the old model was bad.

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