BY AL TOMPKINS & KELLY MCBRIDE · NOVEMBER 8, 2018
- We want journalists to ask questions and seek truth. 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.
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. There’s no doubt that Trump will continue sowing doubt among his followers about the press’ ability to accurately document the administration. 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.
Good questions are powerful tools for reporters. When addressed to a public official, good questions force the subject to explain and explore, giving the public more insight into the official’s reasoning process.
If you look closely at the video, when Acosta was asking questions, his exchange with the president was on track and normal. Acosta asked. “Do you think that you demonize immigrants?” To which the president answered, “No.” A better question might have been, “How do you respond to the criticism that you are demonizing certain types of immigrants, namely poor immigrants?”
But then Acosta’s questions ended and his statements began.
“Your campaign had an ad showing migrants climbing over walls,” he said. And then, “They are hundreds of miles away, that’s not an invasion.” The heated exchange grew from there.
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.
Things got uncomfortable when Acosta refused to turn over the microphone to an intern who reached out to remove it from him, and then stood up to continue his banter without the microphone.
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.
Acosta should have handed over the microphone.
That said, The White House accusation that Acosta manhandled the intern trying to retrieve the microphone is nonsense. It makes us wonder if the White House was looking for an opportunity to pick a fight.
Acosta’s “hard pass” that allows him easy access to the White House as a working journalist was revoked that same night.
The White House Correspondents Association said Wednesday night, “Journalists may use a range of approaches to carry out their jobs and the WHCA does not police the tone or frequency of the questions its members ask of powerful senior government officials, including the President. Such interactions, however uncomfortable they may appear to be, help define the strength of our national institutions. We urge the White House to immediately reverse this weak and misguided action.”
President Trump deftly used the Acosta incident to play the victim of unfair press treatment. Journalists should not give more fuel to such accusations. Ask tough questions, avoid making statements or arguing during a press event and report the news, don’t become the news.
Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.
Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its senior vice president.