Hi everyone, and welcome to the NS Debate: an occasional series in which we discuss something that’s animating the public conversation. Today our New Statesman America team discusses Trump’s withdrawal of the credentials of CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta after a bitter exchange at a press conference on Wednesday.
Following the heated discussion, the White House press secretary released a doctored video and falsely accused Acosta of “placing his hands on” a White House intern who tried to take his microphone from him.
And the question is: how significant is all this, and what should the White House press corps do?
The divide is:
1) The White House banning Acosta – especially in light of the fact that they doctored the footage in a video they released in order to make the scuffle for the microphone look violent – is an extreme abrogation of all Americans’ First Amendment rights and demands an immediate and vigorous response from the press.
2) The White House press briefing room is a pointless charade designed mainly for TV broadcasters to showboat, it plays right into Trump’s hands and sending journalists there is a waste of time in the first place
Obviously all sides condemn Trump’s vilification of the press – this happened just two weeks after a pipe-bomb was mailed to CNN’s office – and especially the dishonest way the White House went about withdrawing Acosta’s credentials, but how big a deal is this exactly and what should happen next?
Nicky Woolf (New Statesman America editor): So this is more directed at TV news than print reporting, but there was something Trump said in that totally bananas press conference yesterday where he had that confrontation with Acosta that I thought was particularly revealing. He said something like “it’s called Earned Media, folks, and it’s worth billions of dollars.” He’s said this before – he knows full well that the media covers him BECAUSE he says crazy norm-destroying things, and that all attention is good attention. How is it serving the public to give free airtime to this administration to lie straight to the faces of the public on a daily basis?
Sophie McBain (America correspondent): I think, though, that even when Trump’s lies make it on the TV unfiltered (though of course more often than not sandwiched between journalistic comment) what he is saying is revealing and is of public importance.
His reaction to a journalist asking him about white nationalism, which he said was a “racist question”, is hugely revealing.
Sarah Manavis (digital culture and technology writer): For me the bigger story was a) what Sophie just said and b) the doctored video. Particularly the latter, because that can’t be spun into Trump’s “just doing this for attention”.
Sophie: Let’s not forget that Trump describes CNN as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people” and he said this just weeks after CNN was subject to an attempted bomb attack. Which is also hugely significant.
Sarah: Yeah. “Enemy of the people” is obviously, objectively dangerous. I don’t feel there’s an argument against that.
Nicky: Except, if we didn’t give him blanket coverage on that “enemy of the people” stuff, would it have spread? If he hadn’t been the lead item on the news every day just through dint of being so completely crazy, would he even be president? Are we incentivising bad behaviour?
Sarah: It really is the perfect game, isn’t it. I do think part of the problem here, in terms of his behaviour towards the press, is the masturbatory way the press loves to cover itself.
Sophie: How the media covered him during the campaign is one thing, but it’s quite another now that he’s president. We can’t just ignore him. He’s calling the shots and setting the tone of the administration.
Nicky: I’m not saying we shouldn’t cover him – I’m saying we should cover him adversarially.
Sophie: Which CNN especially does!
Nicky: CNN is covering him adversarially in a literal sense, ie, what CNN most wants on their air is a fight with the president and that is exactly what the president wants too. What I mean by covering adversarially is the same as how you cover, say, a Fortune 500 company: you source up, you look for stories, you find one, you stand it up – then you go to the company for comment. As a courtesy. You don’t pitch up in a room provided by that company every day and become sort of half-staff. The line between PR flack and journalist gets blurred – I think that’s happening, incidentally, in the Silicon Valley press.
Sophie: I think CNN does both. But I agree about Silicon Valley.
Nicky: You also see it in the Westminster press and the DC press corps, and I think it’s a serious problem. I think it was just as much of a problem in the previous administration, actually, when journos got too pally with Obama staffers and then failed in their duty to hold the administration’s feet to the fire.
Sarah: I think the White House press is obviously deeply flawed, and that’s likely more the problem here. Having something like the [British] Lobby is far, far better I think honestly. Stephen [Bush, New Statesman special correspondent in London] is a great example in that he is in the Lobby, without being beholden to this “old school politics, respect for the Lobby” type attitude. There’s no over-courteousness to the institution itself. Whereas I think White House press do have a weird respect for that job, because it’s held so highly in American media esteem. I think you get far more stories coming out of the Lobby dunking on the UK Government, while the White House Press often just serve as being a body in the room for street-cred in the American media.
Nicky: I think the key difference can be summed up in one word: television. In the UK, TV journalists have to corral MPs outside on that weird bit of lawn outside Westminster Abbey. Here, it’s all geared for television. There are studios set up for press conferences inside Congress and inside the White House. White House Correspondent is a feeder-job for senior anchor. So showboating is what they have to do in order to move up.
Sarah: I think that’s 100 per cent it. It’s a boring, respected thing you do for a few years and then you get to do something better. It’s so known for being a dead space for actual reporting. And this is where the grandstanding about Trump being inappropriate kind of makes me roll my eyes (after the outrage of having a President who does this) – obviously it plays well for CNN to big up that beef with the White House. And then other equally self-aggrandising journalists jump in to go “Yes – what we do is very important.”
Nicky: Too much emphasis is put on that Court-of-the-Sun-King stuff. We should cover what he does, not what he says.
Sophie: The thing is, even if there is grandstanding happening, that’s kind of irrelevant. The president should not be able to withdraw journalistic access for personal reasons or because he doesn’t like the questions asked. And it would be irresponsible and crazy for other members of the press to just ignore this.
Nicky: But here’s where I disagree with you, I think: while there’s a First Amendment right to speech I don’t think there’s a First Amendment right to access. The White House briefing room only dates back to the Johnson administration, right? [Note – while Johnson was the first to hold informal press huddles – this is what I was thinking of – Franklin Roosevelt was the president who formalised the modern White House press corps. The current White House briefing room actually dates back to president Nixon, who had it constructed on top of what had been a swimming-pool.]
Sophie: Well, OK, can you imagine if Trump suddenly stopped granting access to anyone other than Breitbart and Fox News?
Nicky: Great! That would show it for what it is: a propaganda outlet. If your access is only at the pleasure of the president, they’re not real sources, they’re just administration mouthpieces.
Sophie: No, that’s not true. Because the whole point is that the White House press pass is not supposed to be anything to do with the president. And as we know, White House sources have no problem stabbing each other in the back and revealing what is actually going on in there. I don’t think access is just a courtesy. It certainly shouldn’t be viewed like that by the administration. When it functions well it is such a great example of the power of the press that a journalist can directly ask the president a question, with the world’s cameras rolling.
Nicky: There is something to be said for the fact that it’s getting something on the record. But the press needs to make clear that it’s not just a courtesy the White House extends to the press, it’s also a courtesy the press extends to the White House. If they abuse that by lying, that courtesy should be withdrawn – they no longer get the benefit of the doubt that they will give a straight answer to a straight question. We wouldn’t cover Putin this way, so why Trump?
Sophie: I bet Russian journalists wish they could have that kind of access to Putin. Imagine if a Russian opposition journalist could, on Russian TV, ask Putin why he ordered the killing of Skripal or Litvenenko. Or indeed, why he meddled in the US elections. Or about his responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria, or the war in Ukraine. The White House briefing rooms are flawed, but it’s an immense democratic privilege, and not something that Trump should be allowed to fiddle with by kicking out journalists he doesn’t like.
Nicky: Except, it is entirely within his right. Obama didn’t have to give GatewayPundit a press pass. Or [neo-nazi website] the Daily Stormer.
Sophie: OK right, I mean it’s something that’s been open to establishment reporters – and yes, that means it’s not perfect but you need to draw the line somewhere. Maybe that’s harder in the digital age.
Sarah: I guess that’s also part of the problem – it’s establishment press only.
Nicky: I would add that the moment when [New York Magazine Washington correspondent]Olivia Nuzzi played the recording of the children in cages during a briefing was a really good illustration of how things should be done in there. Present Sanders or Trump with hard evidence of lies to their face.
Sarah: Yes! Hard agree.
Sophie: But Acosta was also trying to hold Trump into account, saying: “why are you calling it an ‘invasion’ when you know it’s a caravan of migrants hundreds of miles from the border?” I think he was pretty clear that Trump was lying. I also think that any member of the press needs to defend any kind of attack on the press as aggressively as they can, because we know how vital freedom of the press is to a fair and well-functioning society. Journalists need to show that Trump’s treatment of Acosta was completely unacceptable.
Nicky: We all agree that there should be a walkout, I think?
Sophie: I think so!
Sarah: YES! A walkout would actually be amazing. It would also really clearly show who’s in the pocket of the President. When you’re only left with Fox and Fox-adjacent right-wing news orgs then I think it shows a lot more than the story everyone is trying to tell. I think that’s the point – the real stand you take against this government is not going to the briefings anymore.
Nicky: This is what I’m saying – why are we still sending people to be lied to?
Sophie: Well, it’s not like all politicians except Trump tell the truth – you interview them even when you know they’re lying and then you show they’re lying. I agree with a walkout to register that a line has been crossed, but it’s not the same as ending the briefings altogether.
Nicky: Thing is, once there’s a walkout, at what point should they walk back in? Just when Acosta is recredentialed?
Sophie: Maybe [White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee] Sanders has to go.
Sarah: I think this is where this all falls apart if it’s not coordinated. I don’t think it matters, honestly, what it is. But I think it must be an agreed-upon something, which obviously seems near-impossible. Because I think the second you begin to trickle back in, the game’s over. I think ultimately my feelings are that the White House press room needs to be changed in a permanent way.