“We want journalists to ask questions and seek truth,” Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute wrote late last week. Amid all the ridiculous arguments about the White House trying to yank a microphone away from CNN’s Jim Acosta, followed by its yanking away his press pass, it was a perfect opportunity for Poynter’s professional experts on professional journalism to make a clear statement of principle.
But the next word was “But.” As in:
But Jim Acosta’s encounter Wednesday at a White House press conference was less about asking questions and more about making statements. In doing so, the CNN White House reporter gave President Donald Trump room to critique Acosta’s professionalism.
By “President Donald Trump,” here, the Poynter Institute meant “the Poynter Institute.” The self-styled defenders of journalism continued:
In this time of difficult relations between the press and the White House, reporters who operate above reproach, while still challenging the power of the office, will build credibility.
This is in no way a defense of Trump’s suspension of Acosta’s White House press credentials. Rather, it’s a caution to not hand your critic the stick to beat you with.
It’s hard to say what the most elementary requirement of journalism is, but I tend to vote for “Knowing what words mean when you use them.” Tompkins and McBride were, in fact, defending Trump’s suspension of Acosta’s White House press credentials. They were writing that Acosta was unprofessional, that he lacked credibility, and that he deserved reproach. They were beating him with the stick themselves.
Trump has been attacking the press, as a candidate and now as president, full-time for more than three years now. Claiming that there is some polite and responsible way for the press to do its job, which will deprive him of the opportunity to attack, is beyond cowardly and stupid. It is a lie, in support of those attacks.
Here, according to the Poynter Institute, is what Acosta did wrong:
Had Acosta phrased his question in a more neutral tone, he likely would have had more information for his audience to digest.
Acosta asked the president if Trump had demonized the caravan of Central Americans trekking toward the United States, ending his exchange by stating, “It is not an invasion.”
If Acosta had asked “What about that seems like an invasion?” he could have both sought an answer and avoided becoming bigger than the event he was covering.
The president has been telling a lie about the migrants who are currently heading north through Central America. That lie—that they are an invading force on its way to attack the United States by force—has directly inspired at least two acts of terrorist violence, including one that directly targeted CNN.
And Poynter’s advice on how to handle that is to ask a question that would enable the president to just repeat the same lie. What seems like an invasion? All the criminals, the unidentified Middle Easterners, the Soros money—the whole fictional picture, which the president never hesitates to keep on lying about.
Instead, Acosta confronted the president with the statement that there was no invasion, as a matter of fact. And the White House responded by trying to grab his microphone and expel him. It wasn’t a Q&A, but it definitely was news.
To Poynter, though, it was a sad abandonment of objectivity and a display of disrespect:
Press conferences can be high stakes because they are frequently an attempt to control the message. Reporters who prepare with neutral questions avoid revealing bias or creating unnecessary conflict…
This was a White House event and he was talking to the president of the United States. A briefing is not the same as a cable news wrestling match, where sides shout at each other.
Ah, yes, the dignity of the office! The president, of course, knows perfectly well that his briefings are cable news wrestling matches. He is there to bully the press. The Acosta clip was a sensation because it made the bullying look bad. In a smarter world, the press corps might starve him of attention and refuse to play along at all. In the dumbest possible world, they would do what Poynter wants them to do—play along, but make sure to lose.