Has CNN’s Jim Acosta gone too far in his briefing-room battles with Trump administration officials even for his own network? According to the Washington Examiner’s Eddie Scarry, the answer is yes — although his colleagues aren’t talking about it on the record. Instead, Scarry gets two anonymous sources within CNN to dish on Acosta’s ambitions, accusing him of using the briefings as “his auditions” for a hosting gig.
Live by the sword …
One of Acosta’s colleagues, an on-air conservative political commentator for CNN, said he sees an ulterior motive in Acosta’s actions. He said Acosta’s widely noticed clashes with the White House give the impression that he wants a new role at the network.
“He’s angling to host an opinion show,” he said. “These [White House] briefings are his auditions.”
Another CNN employee in Washington, D.C. made it clear that Acosta’s outbursts aren’t as popular behind the scenes as CNN sometimes makes them out to be on the air.
“Ugh, just ugh,” a producer told the Washington Examiner when asked about Acosta.
New York Times culture writer Sopan Deb took issue with the sourcing, as well as the story itself:
Congrats to the CNN "insiders" willing to anonymously rip a colleague but won't put their name behind it. pic.twitter.com/vefD7MRqz0
— Sopan Deb (@SopanDeb) August 4, 2017
I'm loathe to link to this piece, but I guess I have to. Real great reporting here. Pulitzer-worthy. https://t.co/klAKsezt2v
— Sopan Deb (@SopanDeb) August 4, 2017
Deb has a point, but it’s pretty nuanced — and hardly one that will win the media any support outside of its own circle of practitioners and defenders. In theory, the media uses anonymous sourcing for only those stories with enough national importance that (a) sources require protection from retribution, and (b) substantively provide accountability or expose serious wrongdoing. For all other stories and situations, sources should go on the record or the reporter should take a pass on the story.
That’s the theory. In practice, however, major media outlets use anonymous sources indiscriminately for all sorts of nonsensical minor reports, from CNN’s breathless report on Donald Trump’s ice cream habits (from a throwaway background line in a Time Magazine profile) to whether or not Trump thinks the White House is a “dump.” These are hardly examples of Pulitzer-worthy reporting either. And yet.
With that in mind, it hardly seems dirty pool to use anonymous sourcing to report on the media too, at least on Scarry’s part. While this story doesn’t rise to the level of nat-sec issues, it does touch on the widespread impression that Acosta has crossed over the line from reporter to critic and antagonist, which calls into question CNN’s overall objectivity when covering the Trump administration. That’s a legitimate topic for media criticism.
Deb’s observation about the testicular fortitude of the anonymous sources is valid, of course, and reasonable. However, that’s true for lots of anonymous sources who simply don’t want to be held accountable for their criticism. Political stories are filled with faceless critics of policy and politicians; why should the media get held to a different standard when they’re the subject of reporting than the standard they use for everyone else?
Besides, it’s not as if Acosta is claiming that he’s doing the same job as everyone else in the briefing room, as Paul Farhi writes. He’s angling to stand out from the “wallflower[s]”:
“As my mother told me recently, ‘Let other people be the wallflower,’ ” he said in a brief interview. “If quoting from the Statue of Liberty is pushing too hard, I’m going to keep pushing.”
Acosta offered several more takes on CNN, opining later Wednesday that “I think what you saw unfold in the briefing room is that he [Miller] really just couldn’t take that kind of heat and exploded before our eyes.” And: “It’s not often you’re accused of a cosmopolitan bias from someone who went to Duke University wearing cuff links in the White House briefing room.”
Acosta’s been around long enough to know that reporters and media outlets who make themselves part of the story become legitimate targets for criticism. (Also, Acosta’s been around long enough not to care too much about it.) Should his internal critics at CNN speak up on the record about their own concerns over his grandstanding? Probably, yeah; it would at least be more honorable, and more credible, and even more newsworthy. But they didn’t, much as the sources for a lot of the gossipy nonsense that passes for news these days don’t, and that doesn’t seem to bother reporters when the focus isn’t on themselves. Sauce for the goose, fellas, and all that.
Addendum: Regarding the “dump” comment, it’s worth noting that the White House is undergoing a fortnight of renovation starting next week, and not just for cosmetic purposes:
As it turns out, regardless of whether the president is happy with the current state of the White House, the presidential mansion is about to undergo major renovations this month, from August 4 through 20. A White House spokesperson tells Town & Country that this is “a massive renovation” that is “more out of necessity than cosmetic.”
The work, which will be carried out by the General Service Administration, includes:
- Refurbishing cracked stairs leading into the White House from the South Lawn, which have not been restored in 64 years
- Performing exterior electricity upgrades, power-washing, and resurfacing an exterior door
- Upgrading the HVAC system, which is 27 years old and runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week
- Fixing leaks in the lower press area of the West Wing
- Renovating the kitchen of the Navy Mess
- Painting and renovating to freshen up the colors and switching out curtains and carpets
- Removing temporary stairs by the press briefing room
Whether or not Trump actually did call the White House a “dump,” there’s enough wrong with it to necessitate his absence for more than two weeks to get repairs completed.