During the Donald Trump presidency, CNN chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta (JMU ‘93), has transitioned from not just covering the news, but being the subject of news himself.
Acosta began his press career at WXJM while he was a student at JMU. After graduating, he moved around from D.C., to Tennessee, Texas and Chicago, and then covered John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, before joining CNN in 2007. Since then, he covered covered the campaigns of Mitt Romney, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In January 2018, he was promoted to chief White House correspondent at CNN.
On Saturday, July 13, Acosta sat down with Julie Mason, of SiriusXM’s “Press Pool with Julie Mason,” to discuss his experiences covering the Trump White House, transformations he sees in journalism and the release of his book, The Enemy of the People.
Sitting across from Mason in the Newseum’s Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theatre, Acosta took a lot of questions on the Trump presidency. To begin, they discussed the not-so-subtle title of the book and how Trump labeled the press “the enemy of the people.” Acosta offered a few insights from behind the curtain. Acosta shared a startling moment after the 2016 presidential election in which former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon allegedly shared with him that the Trump team needed an opposition to continue to demonize. Out of this, the war against the press was born.
Acosta offered his own opinion of how the press became Trump’s primary target. Citing Trump’s background as a businessman in New York, for decades there was not a lot of scrutiny from the media. By the time 2016 came around, Acosta began throwing questions to Trump about not being able to withstand the scrutiny which comes with running for President. To that, Acosta says Trump lacked a clear response, but threw in calling Acosta, “a real beauty.” The Newseum crowd laughed at the comical tone and expression Acosta sprinkled in when sharing this.
Covering the Trump campaign the entirety of election night, Acosta shared the astounding transition from the Trump team assuming absolute defeat to becoming confident and presumptuous of their win. Acosta summarized through just one encounter that evening his opinion on the president’s complete misunderstanding of the media’s job to cover and scrutinize the White House. As the election results came in, a Trump aide came up to Acosta that night and said, “Well now that we’ve won maybe we’ll get better coverage from you guys.” In response to this anecdote, Mason let out a booming laugh and questioned whether the Trump team understand how harsh the press has always been on presidents. It is not the time when things get easier, that’s for sure.
I wondered how much people think this is the first time the press has been attacked. After all, we were sitting in a museum that highlights the necessary resilience the media has been forced to adopt over America’s history. However, Acosta addressed my thoughts when he stated, “Nixon also called the press the enemy, but in a much more private way. Donald Trump says it so much, it’s saturated background.” This is also true due to the powerful tool of Twitter and the president’s ability to repeat it as many times as he likes with millions continuing to follow and believe the same.
Interestingly, Acosta did not focus much on the specific targeting, by Trump, on “liberal news” over that of widely regarded conservative media sources. He kept to specific first hand encounters and the media as a whole, only mentioning a few times moments when media from all sides came together in support of press freedom, such as in when Acosta’s press pass was taken away.
Acosta also discussed the president’s rhetoric against immigrants and his experiences at MAGA rallies. Acosta cited the only fears he has are not for backlash toward himself, but for the “whole generation of kids coming up in this country right now that are being exposed to this [rhetoric].” He noted how incredible it has been to see at the rallies how much hostility has been absorbed by our fellow Americans. He points to one clear explanation, “We’ve been so de-Americanized by the President, people demonize us [reporters].”
A question from the audience brought up the future of journalism, specifically involving new technology and its threat to discerning the truth. In response to deepfake’s growth (altering of video and images using AI technology) and the alteration of a video of Acosta himself that became the viral heart of his press pass event, Acosta warned that people are going to have to be much more savvy consumers of information than we have been in the past.
Another topic that seemed to fuel Acosta was the elimination of the press briefing and how it has impacted our supposed stance as a “shiny example of democracy” to the world. Making sure to defend that this point was not for selfish reasons, as apparently many have told him he just wants a chance to get his questions on camera, he shared the usefulness of press secretaries in history providing answers to a variety of questions with their briefing books. He stated, “the press briefing, despite the fact that these people are paid lots and lots of money to deal with the press, that has gone away. And, we are more and more removed from those public officials now, on a daily basis.” Mason responded that even when the answers had no substance, it at least set an example to the world of free press, that officials still had to speak to the media.
Overall, Acosta gave unique anecdotes and information into the world of White House press coverage and the changing landscape of media. However, he lacked depth at times and skirted around questions from the audience which critiqued the media’s sensationalism of the same few topics while ignoring stories of more importance to everyday Americans. A question about trusting the media was left with no clear resolution, though it was addressed with attentiveness and respect. Acosta also critiqued his own field, calling for more coverage on climate change, decreasing live coverage during campaigns and increasing live fact checking.
A clear theme prevailed over the entanglement of topics that were discussed: the incredible importance of protecting the freedom of press and speech. As Acosta warned, “We’re sitting here in the Newseum right now and see the big first amendment mural on the side of the building. And, we take it for granted. But, this is what is at stake right now.”