The debate between Stephen Miller and CNN’s Jim Acosta proved that turning the daily White House press briefing into a TV show is a dangerous thing for journalism.
When the Trump administration temporarily refused permission for televising the daily White House press briefing, journalists howled. They claimed that conducting the briefing without the cameras turned on hurt the public and diminished the government transparency that is needed in a democracy. There was some truth to that, especially since the daily presser has become something of an institution in the last few administrations.
While the daily press briefing has always been a form of theater, the ground rules — under which even the most aggressive questioners sought to ask questions rather than engage in advocacy — have generally been observed. The country learned a lot watching various White House spokespersons squirm under the pressure as they scrambled to defend the policies of their bosses. But as contentious as these exchanges have sometimes been, the White House correspondents taking part in the show generally stuck to asking probing multi-part questions rather than making speeches. But all that ended on Wednesday, when CNN’s Jim Acosta got the chance to query senior Trump aide Stephen Miller about the administration’s support for a new bill that would cut legal immigration.
Instead of asking about the issue, Acosta began to grandstand as if he were a member of Congress hogging the camera at a hearing. Acosta asked about the contrast between the text of the Emma Lazarus poem that is on the base of the Statue of Liberty and the proposed bill Trump is backing. That’s a loaded question, but hardly unfair. But he didn’t just pose the question about the poem or the new requirement that immigrants speak English, or merely follow up when Miller sought to rationalize his position. Acosta interrupted and started debating him.
You’re saying that that does not represent what the country has always thought of as immigration into this country? Stephen, I’m sorry — that sounds like national-park revisionism. The Statue of Liberty as always been a beacon of hope to the world for people to come to this country, and they are not always going to speak English, Stephen. They’re not always going to be highly skilled.
When Miller sought to further explain, Acosta didn’t follow up with another question, but instead continued debating him. His further response to Miller’s answer wasn’t another question but an opinionated rebuke: “You are sort of bringing a ‘Press One For English’ philosophy here to immigration, and that is not what the United States is about.”
No doubt some agree with Acosta about that. But the question everyone who watched the lengthy exchange needed to ask after the dust settled was not which of them was right but what in the world is a straight-news reporter assigned to cover the White House for a major network doing making a speech in a press briefing? And how can he fairly cover this administration in his capacity as a reporter, and not an opinion columnist, if he is using the briefing as a platform for his views on highly divisive political issues?
After his debate with Miller, Acosta went on the air again to vent his disgust for the new immigration policy. He discussed what he considers the president’s “unhealthy obsession with ‘the Mexicans, the Muslims, and the media.’”
That Acosta is a critic of the White House was no secret prior to these rants. As with many other journalists who are more scrupulous about not airing their private opinions when playing reporter, his social-media accounts often betray his personal opinions in a way that compromises any pose of objectivity. Just to bring up one egregious example, at one point last fall he taunted the Trump campaign (which he was covering) with an Instagram post in which he gloated about there being only two days to go before the man who wound up winning and his supporters would be forced to say “bye bye.”
Acosta is entitled to think what he likes about both immigration and Trump. But no matter your opinion of the significance of the Statue of Liberty poem — the text of which hasn’t had much to do with U.S. immigration policy since 1924, when serious restrictions were first introduced — the problem here is a reporter who doesn’t know the difference between news and opinion. Were he a columnist or an opinionated host in the manner of Don Lemon or Sean Hannity, no one would be able to complain about his venting of opinions. But as long as he is presenting himself as a reporter, he can’t be making policy speeches at the daily presser.
It’s true that the church–state-style divide between those two categories has often been blurred in the age of the Internet, as opinion has become the factor that drives both television ratings and Web traffic. Analysis articles that are thinly disguised opinion columns are common on the front page of the New York Times and other newspapers. But while many of the hours broadcast on the cable-news channels are specifically devoted to the airing of opinions, we still have a right to expect reporters — especially those holding prestigious chairs at White House pressers — to act like reporters rather than columnists when given a chance to question the administration.
Acosta failed that test, and — in another era, when institutions like CNN cared more about presenting a façade of objectivity — his performance at the briefing would have cost him his job. Instead, he continues in his post while basking in the fame associated with being a hero to the Left and a villain to the Right.
Part of the blame belongs to a liberal-media culture where hatred for Trump is so intense it’s led many journalists to think any rule can be broken so long as it is in the service of the “resistance.” But in the case of Wednesday’s exhibition by Acosta, the fault also lies with the way the daily White House briefing has become a must-watch TV show in which the journalists compete with one another for opportunities to try to embarrass or confound Trump’s mouthpieces. The cameras present White House correspondents not so much with an opportunity to produce moments of clarity that expose administration failures as it does chances for them to preen in front of their peers and fellow liberals who hate Trump.
They’d have to go back to just doing the hard work of reporting.
Take the cameras away and they’d have to go back to just doing the hard and often dreary work of reporting instead of seizing the moment to become media stars. That doesn’t make for good television but it would be better journalism. More to the point, it would also remove yet one more reason for Americans — be they on the right or the left — to no longer trust the press.
How can viewers trust a reporter whose bias is not only open but also brazenly proclaimed in this manner? If this sort of breach of the divide between news and opinion is not only tolerated but also lauded, then why should anyone trust CNN or any other network or publication when it reports stories that have political implications? Anyone who cares about the reputation of the press or its vital role in our democracy should now be demanding that the cameras be turned off at the briefings, before Acosta and others like him do any more harm to the media’s already low public standing.
– Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor at JNS.org and a contributor to National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.