n August 9, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists announced that CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta would receive its 2017 Presidential Award.
“For the past years, I’ve seen Jim Acosta in action,” association president Brandon Benavides said in a statement. “He’s covered President Obama and President Donald Trump, always pushing both sides to answer the tough questions.” Acosta, Benavides said, is more than a journalist: “As a voice for the people, Acosta is not afraid to hold our elected leaders accountable. Regardless of criticism, he remains focused in a pursuit of truth for our communities.”
The award is a fitting milestone for Acosta, whose father is a Cuban immigrant. Over the early months of the Trump administration, he has emerged as a leader of what chief strategist Steve Bannon calls “the opposition party”: the mainstream media institutions whose negative coverage annoys the president even more than Kim Jong Un does. Acosta is the most recent link in a long chain of antagonistic White House correspondents, from Sam Donaldson to Helen Thomas. Like his predecessors, he is not afraid to challenge administration officials. He also possesses an ego of gargantuan proportions, his self-regard so all-encompassing that it approaches even that of President Trump himself. No small feat. The problem is that Acosta’s penchant for self-dramatization not only undermines his claim to be a fair-minded and neutral observer of Trump’s Washington, but also diminishes the power of his occasionally legitimate gripes.
Trump and Acosta have a codependent relationship. They need each other for foils. But things did not begin well between them. On May 31, 2016, Acosta asked candidate Trump a tough question about his charitable donations. Trump’s response was characteristically dismissive. “I’ve seen you on TV,” he said. “You’re a real beauty.” By last January, when CNN revealed the existence of the so-called Steele Dossier containing salacious and unverified accusations of Trump connections to the Russian government, it was clear that the breach could not be repaired. Acosta and the president-elect tangled in a press conference. Trump refused to answer questions. “You are fake news,” Trump said of Acosta and his network. That hurt.
Acosta fought back by sniping and criticizing as much as reporting. His grandstanding was one of the reasons former White House press secretary Sean Spicer curtailed the practice of on-camera briefings this past spring. Since television journalists live or die by the amount of time they appear on screen, Acosta was understandably annoyed at this development. His response was to elide the distinction between correspondent and commentator. He escaped the bonds of mere reporting and took flight into the astral realm, where he defended our freedoms and championed our ideals, as understood by Jim Acosta. Letting White House correspondents preen for the cameras, for example, is who we are as Americans.
“The White House press secretary is getting to a point where he’s just kind of useless,” Acosta told CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin on June 19.
That’s the White House, behind me. The White House! It’s bizarre. I don’t know what world we’re living in. When we’re standing at the White House, and they bring us into the briefing room, here at the White House, and they won’t answer these questions on camera, or let us record the audio. I don’t know why everybody is going along with this. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. . . . It’s like we’re just covering bad reality television.
A few days later, after haranguing Spicer during a briefing by continually asking, “Why are the cameras off, Sean?” Acosta told the Washington Post: “My sense is that we are going to have to engage in a sustained, vocal protest of these restrictions so this does not become the new normal.… This is not about me. This is not partisan. This is about coverage.” Yet Acosta failed to explain how coverage is materially affected by the presence of a live television feed.
As his tirades grew in scope and intensity, Acosta began to imagine himself living in an incipient police state, where the decades-long running battle between Donald Trump and the press was the harbinger of a dark future. “Video coverage of today’s briefing was outlawed by WH … er I mean … the USA,” he tweeted on June 28, as if the “law” was involved in any way in the feud. Appearing on Anderson Cooper’s show that evening, he held up his phone and said he could have recorded the briefing surreptitiously. “What would have happened if I had done that?” he asked. “Would they have hauled us off?” Covering the president’s news conference in Poland, Acosta bristled when Trump took a question from David Martosko of the Daily Mail. “Isn’t it a ‘fake news conference’ to take a question from a reporter who is essentially an ally of the White House?” he tweeted.
In the course of the 10-day tenure of now-fired communications director Anthony Scaramucci, the cameras were turned back on. Acosta wasted no time finding center stage. On August 2, he engaged in a long, tortured, bitter, personal debate over immigration with senior policy adviser Stephen Miller. He read aloud from Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus.” He accused Miller of “sort of bringing a ‘Press One for English’ philosophy here to immigration, and that is not what the United States is about.” He said it “sounds like you’re trying to engineer the racial and ethnic flow of people into this country through this policy.” Miller replied, “Jim, that is one of the most outrageous, insulting, ignorant, and foolish things you’ve ever said.”
The exchange was so pointed and abnormal that some critics of the Trump administration in general and its immigration policies in particular said Acosta had crossed the boundary separating journalism from advocacy. Acosta had no such qualms. He’s a one-man freedom machine. “Let other people be the wallflower,” he told the Washington Post. “If quoting from the Statue of Liberty is pushing too hard, I’m going to keep pushing.” Describing his clash with Miller to CNN, Acosta said, “I think what you saw unfold in the briefing room is that he really just couldn’t take that kind of heat and exploded before our eyes.” That’s one way of looking at it.
Showboats are nothing new. And there are plenty of reasons to criticize President Trump and his treatment of the press. But at what point does Jim Acosta betray his audience by putting his ego ahead of reporting the facts? He’s not telling a story. He’s becoming the story: the story of Jim Acosta’s crusade against Donald Trump. It’s not terribly interesting, and one has to wonder whether Acosta would be behaving similarly had Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
Perhaps a clue can be found in the “tough questions” the National Association of Hispanic Journalists says Acosta asked President Obama. Like this one, from a press conference in 2015:
And separately, sir, I wanted to ask you about what some people are calling ‘your best week ever’ last week. You had two Supreme Court decisions supportive of the Affordable Care Act and of gay rights. You also delivered a speech down in Charleston that was pretty warmly received. It seems that you’ve built up some political capital for the remaining months of your presidency. I’m curious, how you want to use it? What hard things do you want to tackle at this point?
“A voice for the people,” indeed.