The verb to accost comes from the old French that meant “to sail up close to a ship or a shoreline.” CNN’s Jim Acosta lived up to his patronymic (which has comparable coastal roots in Portuguese and Spanish) when he confronted White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders with guns blazing last week, demanding to know if she shared Donald Trump’s belief that the press is the enemy of the American people.
Stipulate that Sanders traduces the truth each waking or speaking hour. Stipulate, too, that Acosta had just been the object of threatening and abusive taunts at a Trump rally in Florida. Even stipulate, if you wish, that his question was a cri de coeur and not a showy bid for clicks and ratings in the debased ritual of performance art that the White House briefing has become.
But acknowledge this also, please: Whenever a reporter who has not been kidnapped by terrorists, shot by an assailant, or won a big prize becomes an actor in her own story, she has lost the fight. Or in this case, reinforced the corrosive, cynical, and deeply dangerous feedback loop that has convinced Trump’s most fervent supporters that his relentless brief against the press has merit: FAKE NEWS! SAD!
These are parlous times for a free press, and any reporter who defends First Amendment values and virtues should be applauded. I’m loath, as a brother in the trade, to criticize Acosta or his motives. But as that subversive British student of free expression Noël Coward once memorably put it: “There’s a right way, and a wrong way; there’s a weak way, and a strong way. Take it easy. Drive with caution when the road is greasy: Wait a bit, wait a bit, Joe.”
The White House press conference was once played out so privately that Franklin D. Roosevelt could shame a hostile reporter in the Oval Office by sardonically awarding him a Nazi Iron Cross. (The stunt still made the papers.) Eventually, the press conference was grudgingly filmed—but with veto power for selective release by Dwight Eisenhower—and finally broadcast live on daytime TV by John F. Kennedy, who wrapped reporters (and viewers at home) around his dashing finger.
But the press secretary’s briefing—long an informal, in camera affair, once intended for a meaningful exchange of information and facts—has only been available for live broadcast in its entirety for a little more than 20 years, since the middle of Bill Clinton’s first term. On its face, that sounds like progress: independent journalists speaking truth to power, on behalf of—and in front of—the people.
In practice, the ritual has all too often become a circus of reportorial self-expression, and sometimes self-promotion. I should know. I was there, as a White House correspondent for The New York Times in the mid-1990s, and more often than I’d like to think, I contributed to this devolution. I would trudge to the White House from the Times’ bureau in Farragut Square, determined not to ask any questions, because I knew I’d get better answers in private phone calls later in the day. But inevitably, in the middle of the briefing, someone would ask Mike McCurry, the skilled and candid press secretary (who was under no illusions about his president’s faults, but did his best to defend him all the same), a question that elicited a defensive or dissembling response. “Mike, are you saying, from this podium … ?” was a regular remonstrance from Wendell Goler, a correspondent for AP Radio and Fox News. Against my better judgment, my high-school debater’s instincts often drew me to the fray, prolonged the briefing needlessly, and delayed the filing of my story.
On one memorable occasion, during the 1996 reelection campaign, in Kansas City, in an informal scrum of reporters in a hotel hallway, McCurry responded to a question about some now-long-forgotten controversy by accusing his interlocutor of questioning his truthfulness. My hackles raised, I said, a bit too hotly, “Well, don’t ever lie to us then!” The next thing I knew, the late Michael Kelly, then a correspondent for The New Yorker and later the editor of this magazine, was interviewing me on the press bus, making it clear that he thought my confrontation (which I had thought private) wasn’t just public but newsworthy. That whole long day in Missouri I died a thousand deaths (because, of course, McCurry, in hindsight a figure of Olympian rectitude, had come nowhere close to telling a lie that day) until, finally, in a ballroom filing center in St. Louis, McCurry was gracious enough to take the lead in performing a ritual hug of mutual apology with me. Kelly stood down. My beef stayed private. Quaint? Yes. Valuable? I think so.
The world today is different. Whatever one calls presidential statements at odds with empirical reality—misrepresentations, alternative facts, lies—the gulf between truth and falsehood in the Trump White House makes Lyndon B. Johnson’s “credibility gap” look like the headwaters of the Mississippi, a rivulet crossable on foot at flood tide.
So Acosta had, in one sense, ample cause to ask Sanders if she subscribed to her boss’s Stalinist view of the press. “I … I … ,” he said, revving up the first-person pronoun before declaring, “I think it would be a good thing if you were to say right here at this briefing that the press, the people who are gathered in this room right now, are doing their jobs every day, asking questions of officials like the ones you brought forward earlier, are not the enemy of the people. I … I think we … we deserve that.”
When Sanders began to respond, Acosta—who bears a passing salt-and-pepper-haired resemblance to George Clooney— interrupted her repeatedly, finally allowing her to reply, with a quavering voice while visibly consulting prepared talking points on the lectern in front of her, that she had been personally attacked by the media, mocked for her appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first press secretary in history to require Secret Service protection because of public harassment. All regrettable, of course, but a word cloud irrelevant to the matter at hand.
Acosta then cut off his colleagues to demand a follow-up, which elicited yet another demurrer from Sanders—at which point he got up and walked out of the briefing room. “Those watching the exchange on television would have noticed the faces of Mr. Acosta’s fellow correspondents,” The New York Times reported dryly, “some watching with curiosity and others averting their gaze.”
I have never met Acosta. By all evidence, he is a serious reporter who has paid his dues at local TV stations and traditional beats. In Sam Rayburn’s skeptical parlance about the in-the-trenches deficits of JFK’s brainy New Frontiersmen, he’s run for sheriff (or at least covered a few). That makes me wonder why Acosta didn’t know better, why he ever thought he might elicit from Sanders—who has defended her boss in ways arguably far more outrageous than the one for which he was attempting to make her repent—any answer other than the nonanswer, hostile back-atcha response she gave.
I once read some good advice from a journalist —was it Nicholas Lemann?—who suggested that no profile writer should ask a hostile question if he didn’t believe it would produce a meaningful, revealing answer. Did Acosta really think his interrogatory to Sanders would? Did he think it would make the CNN suits sit up and say howdy? Who knows, but he has engaged in similar jousting in the past, asking Trump’s policy adviser Stephen Miller how the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty—with its lines, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—could possibly jibe with Trump’s harsh anti-immigration policy.
The prickly question produced a pedantic, not entirely accurate answer from Miller that the poem was added to the statue’s base after erection, an answer that ignored that poem was written to help finance construction of the base in the first place.
Perhaps the best advice for Acosta (and the rest of us) comes from Martin Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post and one of contemporary America’s most respected journalists, on his acceptance of a leadership award last year. “The president has said he is at war with the press,” Baron said then. “I can say this: We are not at war. We are at work—just doing our jobs.”
Indeed, it is the working journalist’s first maxim to show, not tell; to do, not say; to explain, not exhort; to omit, as E. B. White advised, “needless words.” It’s true that a hostile nonanswer from a public official can be revealing, as Sanders’s was in its way. After all, the president’s own daughter Ivanka felt able to say that she did not view the press as the enemy; would it have really hurt Sanders to do the same?
But Acosta’s confrontation—so florid, so vivid—also plays directly into Trump’s received narrative about a hostile, combative, and even unfair press. It’s an uncomfortable echo of Dan Rather’s famous 1974 exchange with Richard Nixon, when an audience at the National Association of Broadcasters’ meeting greeted Rather’s mere introduction with applause (and scattered boos), and Nixon inquired, “Are you running for something?” Rather bowed his head in a humble-brag way before rejoining, “No, sir, Mr. President, are you?” prompting a frozen skeleton’s smile from Nixon.
The last thing Trump—or the press, or the public—needs is another convenient villain in the performative arena of the long-running reality show that is his administration. Acosta’s broadside blurs the line between reporting and performance, between work and war, at a time when journalists have a greater obligation than ever to demonstrate that what they do is real, and matters—and is not just part of the passing show.