BALTIMORE — I hope Jim Acosta’s not waiting around for a special Emmy Award for courage in journalism.
The CNN White House correspondent capped a series of public skirmishes with President Donald Trump by winning a legal verdict last week in federal court.
He gets to keep his White House hard pass – at least for now.
But it’s a verdict that never should have been litigated in the first place. You want to stage a fight over freedom of the press, I’m right by your side. But this series of macho Trump-Acosta exhibitions that set off the legal fight needn’t have taken place at all.
What we’ve been witnessing aren’t so much philosophical fights over First Amendment privileges as acts of theater in which it’s hard to know who’s most guilty of hogging the White House spotlight.
As everybody knows, Trump tries to use media types as chumps. He calls reporters “enemies of the people” and then feigns ignorance when Neanderthals at his rallies make threatening gestures toward Acosta and other reporters.
He disparages newspapers and cable news operations which dare to tell the truth about his racism and his misogyny and his steady barrage of lies.
But, in the matter of meaningful reporting – that is, uncovering truths that somebody’s trying to keep hidden – consider this: Nobody’s hit this president harder than The New York Times and The Washington Post.
But he hasn’t (yet) tried to revoke any of their reporters’ White House credentials.
So let’s be clear about this: I’m absolutely on Acosta’s side when he’s trying to pry loose some random bit of truth from this president. And I’m appalled that Trump attempted to snatch away Acosta’s White House hard pass. And I understand the frustration reporters feel trying to get at the truth from a chief executive who has avoided answering so many questions for so much of his term.
Everybody understands Acosta’s attempts to ask a question, or two or three, and his reluctance to give up the microphone recently when Trump tried to move on to another reporter and Acosta kept talking.
But there’s a difference between reporters needlessly grabbing the spotlight, and making themselves the story, as Acosta has done – and fighting a serious battle for freedom of the press.
He and this president have found mutually advantageous foes, feeding off each other’s public combativeness.
If Trump doesn’t like Acosta’s questioning, why does he keep calling on him? There are dozens of other reporters in the room, and they’d each like a shot at questioning the president of the United States. But only a fraction get the chance.
But Trump’s consistently called on Acosta because he’s got this ongoing battle with CNN, and by calling on Acosta he gets a chance to re-visit an ongoing theme of his: that reporters are bad people, that they’re the enemy – and, just to prove it, look how obnoxious this guy Acosta is, who won’t even give up his microphone so somebody else can get a word in.
It’s not like Acosta’s asking some question that nobody else in the room has thought to ask. If he doesn’t ask it, somebody else surely will. And Acosta knows this, and he could have yielded the microphone after his third attempt at follow-up was shot down.
But he held onto the microphone – and the moment.
In fact, here’s one of the little secrets about being a TV correspondent covering the White House: they uncover so little original material, and uncover so little actual news.
They’re not like the New York Times, quietly digging through Trump financial records to reveal the outright fraud committed by the president. They’re not like the Washington Post, reporting that Trump revealed highly-classified secrets to Russian officials in the oval office.
Acosta’s like other TV correspondents. He stands in front of a camera and asks a question, and maybe he gets a follow-up. And, a little later in the day, he gets to show video of that give-and-take, and this is what TV calls great reporting.
And if he holds onto that microphone, and adds some dramatic tension to the moment, that little act of defiance TV considers a story in itself.
Which only plays further into this president’s hands.
So now, maybe Trump will call on some other reporter instead of Acosta. And that reporter will ask a question Acosta might well have asked. And Acosta, back in action, will do what he’s always done, which is to show video of Trump getting questioned – by somebody – and answering in his accustomed self-aggrandizing way.
And freedom of the press will have survived once more.
Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of several books, including Michael Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press.