Via Mediaite, people are pointing to what Jon Stewart said last week about the media’s narcissism in wrestling with Trump as a premonition of what happened yesterday at the White House with Acosta. Eh. It’s true that he’s the first cable news reporter who pops to mind when you think “narcissism” and “media.” (Or “narcissism” and anything.) I mentioned him myself in my post about Stewart’s comment. But what Stewart meant was that reporters take sincere offense when Trump calls them “the enemy of the people” and they let that affront color their coverage priorities. They want to fight him on that point and defend their importance to civil society, which leads them supposedly to divert resources from more important policy disputes. It’s narcissism, but narcissism in service to the honest belief that they’re serving the people by tracking what powerful government officials are up to. It’s partly about ego but partly about beating back the authoritarian notion that holding the leader accountable is some sort of light treason.
Acosta’s narcissism is shallower. Yeah, he’ll complain about the “enemy of the people” stuff too but that’s not what sets him apart from the pack and draws special ire from Trump’s fans. His narcissism is pure grandstandin’ vainglory. The only thing that makes him happier than doing his Sam Donaldson “aggressive questioner” shtick when the cameras are on is hinting afterward on CNN about how brave he was in aggressively peppering the president with his questions. His fights with Trump are 99.44 percent performance, which is why yesterday’s fiasco at the press conference was so dispiriting and exhausting. Trump clearly relished the combat, using Big Jim as his foil. But Acosta relished it too, using the president of the United States as his own foil. It reeked of kabuki on both sides. He’s now even earned coveted “Onion punchline” status because of it.
For all the takes about how Trump used the incident strategically, to shift national chatter away from the Democrats’ takeover of the House, I think Acosta uses these moments strategically too. Dana Perino says in the clip below that she knows some of Acosta’s CNN colleagues aren’t happy with his showboating; that’s no secret, as it’s been reported before. If Trump had just begun ignoring him at pressers, as Ed recommended doing in his post this morning, or taken a low-key approach to Acosta continuing to embarrass himself, CNN execs might have quietly rotated him onto a new beat in due time. He’s not helping their inch-thin pretense to this-is-an-apple objectivity, after all. But now Trump’s made him a martyr and a media cause celebre by revoking his “hard pass” to the White House. If CNN pulled him at this point they’d be capitulating to a heavy-handed tactic by the White House to freeze out a troublesome journalist. The Resistance would hate them for handing Trump a win and the industry would hate them for rewarding Trump’s anti-press instincts. So now they’re stuck with Acosta.
And I think Acosta knew it. I don’t think it goes as far as him trying to engineer a big freak-show incident replete with disputes over how deliberately he touched a White House staffer’s arm, but the general hyper-confrontational approach to Trump and Sarah Sanders that he takes at pressers is a form of job security. So long as he enjoys “special enemy” status from Trump, CNN can’t take him out of the White House. Otherwise they’d be surrendering to the president. And to, er, professionalism. “What do the bosses at CNN see as their mission? asks Chris Wallace in the clip below. “In this particular case is it to cover the news, or is it to make a scene?” Well, CNN?