Jonathan Karl vs. Jim Acosta

CNN’s Jake Tapper, Evan Perez, and Jim Sciutto accept the Merriman Smith Award from ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, D.C., April 28, 2018. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)
One of them is a first-rate reporter.

Washington journalists obviously think of themselves as a united front, working as one to oppose President Trump, his ideas, his policies, his employees, his associates, and especially his reelection campaign. They’re happy to promote one another, their supposed competitors, in the interest of their shared project of trying to destroy Trump. That’s why it’s so unusual for a prominent member of the D.C. media circle to break ranks and criticize #Resistance journalism. Let’s have some applause, then, for Jonathan Karl of ABC News for calling out the performative outrage of CNN’s absurd Jim Acosta.

Acosta’s Kardashian-plus preening is so nauseating that Karl expends several pages of his book Front Row at the Trump Show calmly laying out why Acostan antics are exactly what White House correspondents should not be doing. In a 2018 White House performance, Karl recalls, Acosta huffed at length about Trump’s “enemy of the people” jibe, telling the president’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, “I think it would be a good thing” if Trump disavowed the insult because “I think we deserve that.” Karl notes drily that when Acosta left the room, hardly anyone noticed, since reporters leave briefings all the time and CNN’s seat is by the door anyway. Acosta later claimed that he left the room in protest, as if “reporter walks out of room” constitutes any more of a story than “reporter orders a club sandwich.”

Acosta obviously relishes the combative spirit of the age and has taken to pulling more stunts than Evel Knievel in order to increase his public profile, not to provide any useful info to the public. He is unabashedly an entertainer, not a conduit: He might as well be smashing watermelons or juggling flaming bowling pins. So after he flounced out of the room like Miss Piggy that day two years ago, his follow-up report, live from the White House was . . . to propose a public protest, with himself presumably twirling a baton at the front of it. In his exclusive report to the world, Acosta breathlessly said this:

I think maybe we should make some bumper stickers. Make some buttons, you know, maybe we should go out on Pennsylvania Avenue like these kids who chant “CNN sucks” and “fake news,” maybe we should go out, all journalists should go out on Pennsylvania Avenue and chant, “We’re not the enemy of the people,” because I’m tired of this.

Oh, were you tired, Jim? Because that’s not how it appeared. To all outward observation, I’d say the relevant adjective was “excited.” Maybe even “exhilarated.” “Intoxicated,” perhaps. Little Jimmy-wimmy was in full-on, full-of-himself and full-of-something-else tantrum mode, flinging his Gerber’s applesauce in every direction. What fun! Except . . . who hired Jim Acosta to promote imaginary rallies? Jim Acosta’s job is to obtain and pass along information from the White House, not to report on his hurt feelings.

I’ve known Karl for 25 years, since we sat next to each other in the city room of the New York Post, and I know he’s too diplomatic to call out Acosta as rudely as he deserves. But still, Karl deserves kudos for issuing even a mild rebuke to his compatriot amid the press’s rigidly enforced omerta about its own f(l)ailings. Karl is the current president of the White House Correspondents Association, and there is no advantage for him in castigating a brother reporter. For all I know, he is being labeled a traitor and a fratricidal untouchable for calling out Acosta’s advanced nincompoopery, albeit in temperate language. Acosta was, notes Karl, “playing right into the explicit Trump strategy of portraying the press as the opposition party.” I suppose the other White House reporters aren’t going to be inviting Karl to join their Uber Pool next time there’s a car shortage.

I’ve plowed through a bunch of these what-I-saw-at-the-Trump-circus books, and one thing that is almost totally absent from them is criticism of reporters by reporters. The most egregious media errors, sins, and face-plants go unmentioned. Which is why these books are, as a group, so unutterably boring: We already know what Trump said to you, dear reporter, as thrilling as it must be to tell us again, so give us the dish on Katy Tur or Chris Cuomo. They never do.

“The surest way,” Karl continues, “to undermine the credibility of the White House press corps is to behave like the political opposition. . . . Don’t give speeches from the White House briefing room and for heaven’s sake, don’t talk about holding protests against the president in Lafayette Park.” Just so. “There are times when I have wanted to get on my soapbox just like Acosta did,” Karl says, but “I don’t believe I should act like an opinion journalist.”

When millions are watching, it can be difficult to remember this, but: Reporters are not the story. Karl gets this, and even when Trump turns his guns on him, as he has on a few occasions, Karl doesn’t report back to the nation as if he’s one of the principals in a Manny Pacquiao–Floyd Mayweather bout. When Trump last month labeled Karl a “third-rate reporter” (which was off by two rates), Karl said that, regardless of whether the president is praising or chastising members of the media, “You need to ignore it. It’s not what matters. What matters is trying to report the facts and being accurate and being fair and asking the right questions. I don’t want to engage in this personal back-and-forth.” Well said.

In the book, Karl marvels at an exchange he had with the president in the Oval Office in 2019, when he asked Trump whether he should sign other spending bills so that federal workers could be paid while a dispute continued about budgeting for homeland security, which was held up over Democratic opposition to funding a wall on the southern border. “You think I should do that?” Trump asked Karl. “I mean, I watch your one-sided reporting. Do you think I should do that? Hey, Jon — no, seriously, Jon, do you think I should just sign?” Later in the exchange Trump suggested that Karl would be a poor president. “If you would do that, you should never be in this position. Because you would never get anything done.” Karl notes that White House staff had themselves a laugh at this line. Good for him. It’s probably too much to ask for White House reporters to take themselves less seriously, but Karl must be among the few covering Trump who can admit to being laughed at.


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