The news media has been all agog over CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta’s confrontation with President Trump over the well-publicized “caravan” of Central Americans making its way through Mexico to the southern U.S. border.
Much ado has been made over doctored film clips, Acosta losing (and winning back, through the courts, his press pass), and new White House rules for uppity reporters.
There’s also been lots of breast-beating about Trump’s statement at the same press conference (which wasn’t the first time) that reporters are “enemies of the people.” That gave a bunch of pundits a chance to remind everyone that Uncle Joe Stalin liked to call those he shipped off to the Soviet Union’s prison camps, or just plain shot dead, the same thing.
I won’t say America’s press mavens are enemies of the people, but let’s face it: Just like the politicians and spin doctors they “confront” every day, too many credentialed reporters, especially the elite “stars,” are enemies of the truth.
Why? They’re either biased, lazy, or most toxic, both. But bias and sloth in journalism isn’t limited to that profession — both are basic to human nature.
Let’s consider bias. Anyone who watches (or participates in) events unfolding forms an opinion as to whether the outcome of an event is “good” or “bad,” right? The good or bad then depends on what you have at stake … and reporters are supposed to be observers.
Second, there’s sloth. All of us, not just journalists, get assignments where we do just enough to keep from getting canned. Then, on other jobs, we go above and beyond, in hopes of being the best.
How do bias and sloth mix when it comes to journalism? Watch a ball game. Don’t you take sides? Sure. Now, have you ever noticed how “home-team” sports stories are almost always more vivid than the “wire” version of the same game by a “neutral” or “objective” out-of-town reporter?
Now, what about a bar fight, a political debate, even a war? Perhaps a topic near and dear to your heart that you know “too well?” For a reporter, expected to be objective, what might be the most-efficient way to avoid “bias?” How about being a little (or a lot) lazy, so one doesn’t learn too much or get too involved?
So, back to Mr. Acosta, who gathered few critics and many supporters. The most honest assessment came in a commentary from Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride with the Poynter Institute journalism school at Northeastern University, which very mildly criticized Mr. Acosta for failing to “represent the best of journalism.”
What, pray tell, might be journalism’s “best?” The writers set the stage by explaining “press conferences can be high stakes because they are frequently an attempt to control the message.”
Of course, good reporters should then try to de-control the message with the right questions, preferably “neutral questions [that] avoid revealing bias or creating unnecessary conflict.” Good advice, right?
Well, the Poynter team doesn’t mention it directly, but Acosta actually started his stand-up with “I want to challenge you,” introducing plenty of conflict. However, they did criticize the ending, where Acosta finally asked: “Do you think you demonize immigrants?”
Let me digress a hair regarding Acosta’s “question,” which is incredibly loaded and biased at least in part because the Associated Press “stylebook” has, since 2013, barred all “journalistic” use of “illegal immigrant” except in quotes from sources. Is this a legal caravan, folks, of legal immigrants?
Back to Poynter’s narrative, when Trump answered “No,” Acosta then complained about a campaign ad and declared the caravan “not an invasion” — obviously Acosta was done asking questions, having crossed the bright line that keeps reporters from not just making, but faking news.
But when the poor intern came for the hogged microphone, he brushed her off — at, as Tompkins and McBride noted, a “White House event [while] he was talking to the President of the United States [not] a cable news wrestling match.”
Therefore, “Acosta should have handed over the microphone,” and resumed being the “best of journalism.”