The events that led on Wednesday to the White House barring CNN correspondent Jim Acosta are a sad commentary on our national dialogue. The tense exchange between President Trump and Acosta is difficult and embarrassing to watch—not because the video has been “doctored” as some are now claiming but because both men demonstrate utter contempt and disrespect for their respective roles as they shamelessly peacock for ratings. You can almost feel the republic devolving to its lowest common denominator: narcissists preening before the cameras and beating their chests in self-righteous fury.
That’s not how the media portrayed the event, of course. “Freedom of the press is under assault,” CBS agonized. CNN declared that the White House’s justification for removing Acosta’s access was a “lie.” Other journalists speculated that Acosta losing his “hard pass” access to the White House was “unprecedented,” somehow forgetting Obama’s war with Fox News that included spying “extensively on Fox News reporter James Rosen in 2010, collecting his telephone records, tracking his movements in and out of the State Department and seizing two days of Rosen’s personal emails,” according to a Department of Justice report.
By the end of the day, the media had canonized Acosta as a martyr to True Journalism™. But is he?
Acosta asked very few actual questions during his exchange with Trump. This is typical. Back in August 2018, for instance, the New York Times noted that “Jim Acosta, the square-jawed CNN correspondent, has stood out among the White House press corps for his impassioned on-air monologues about the importance of the First Amendment” and that “Acosta [broke] from the usual sober style of White House reporters [by framing] his question to [White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee] Sanders as a moral choice.”
The Times reported on one exchange he had with Sanders:
“It would be a good thing if you were to state right here, at this briefing, that the press—the people who are gathered in this room right now, doing their jobs every day, asking questions of officials like the ones you brought forward earlier—are not the enemy of the people,” Mr. Acosta said in his newscaster’s baritone. “I think we deserve that.”
Ms. Sanders deflected—and then mirrored Mr. Acosta’s tone.
“It’s ironic, Jim,” she said, “that not only you and the media attack the president for his rhetoric, when they frequently lower the level of conversation in this country.”
The New York Times also noted that Acosta’s monologues have led “some of his rival White House reporters” to roll their eyes. Why might other journalists in the room react that way, and why did Fox News’s Chris Wallace say that Acosta had “embarrassed himself” on Wednesday?
Because the White House briefing room isn’t the appropriate place to deliver commentary in the form of questions. Furthermore, during his press conferences, the president has a right to tell a reporter that his turn is up and that he is moving on to another person. Other outlets and reporters in the room deserve opportunities to ask their questions too. A press briefing is not a one-on-one interview, nor is it the place to issue snide putdowns and characterizations of the president’s positions.
More importantly, self-aggrandizing harangues that turn the reporter into the story are not a legitimate form of journalism. As the Society of Professional Journalists warns, “injecting oneself into the story or creating news events for coverage is not objective reporting, and it ultimately calls into question the ability of a journalist to be independent, which can damage credibility.”
None of this means that the White House is justified in removing Acosta’s pass. What it does mean is that Acosta isn’t even a practitioner of true journalism, let alone a martyr to its cause. For CNN to have a martyr, the network would need to send someone who acts like a journalist.
Wednesday’s performance was never about journalism, and the first clue to that is how few questions Acosta actually asks. He started off his exchange with the president by saying that he will “challenge” Trump on his description of the migrant caravan.
Even as Acosta is muttering these words, Trump begins to mock him: “Oh here we go. Come on, let’s go.”
Another clue is when Trump says this: “You know what, I think you should let me run the country. You run CNN, and if you did it well, your ratings would be much better.”
It’s a dead-giveaway: each man is playing to his audience. If there is one thing that Trump knows well, it’s how to get ratings, a fact that CBS Chairman Les Moonves once testified to when he said that “it may not be good for America” but Trump is “damn good” at getting viewers.
CNN watchers want to see Trump taken to task. Just as ravenously, Trump supporters want the president to take the media to the mat. They love nothing better than seeing him combat what they perceive to be sneering media elites. Every time Trump engages pugnaciously with a reporter, he throws red meat to his base.
For its part, CNN probably got the views it was looking for thanks to this incident. But the network should tread carefully. Every time a member of the media behaves like Acosta, they’re not only damaging the media’s credibility; they’re playing into Trump’s hands.
Barbara Boland is the former weekend editor of the Washington Examiner. Her work has been featured on Fox News, the Drudge Report, HotAir.com, RealClearDefense, RealClearPolitics, and elsewhere. She’s the author of Patton Uncovered, a book about General Patton in World War II. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.