Saturday, November 10, 2018

Trump vs Acosta: White House media relations plummet to a new low

Photo credit: Time
I watched the entire one-and-a-half hour press conference President Donald Trump had with the White House media on November 07.

There was nothing unusual in the way he responded to the journalists. That is the way he is. He snubbed many of them, and called many of them part of fake news.

But the extent of frustration and anger seemed to be unusual. So also the revoking of the press pass of a White House correspondent, and the seeming warning to other journalists not to ask uncomfortable questions.

Here is the full video and transcript of the entire press conference, from C-Span. The now-well-known confrontation with CNN's White House correspondent Jim Acosta is after 27 min 30 sec.

Trump has a history of quarrels with Acosta. In Jan 2017, Jim asked him a question about "Russian meddling" and the President-elect lost his cool. Then the confrontation with Jim when addressing a joint press conference with British PM Theresa May in London. In this presser too, Trump displayed the same sort of frustration with the questions.

FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS

When the President called Jim for his turn, and the latter began asking the question, it was evident Trump was getting irritated; more irritated than with other journalists. He remarked, "Here we go ..."

To be fair to the President, he was encouraging Jim to ask questions. And his early remarks looked sporting though sarcastic, as usual. Trump very patiently explained to Jim that the immigrants can come into America, but they can come only legally.

The point of contention was Trump's characterisation of the movement of immigration as an invasion. Trump said he and Jim had differing views on whether it was an invasion or not. Jim was trying to get an explanation from the President on why he thought that it was an invasion.

Trump wasn't able to convey himself clearly. Or he didn't have a clear answer. Trump then told Jim to let him run the country and that Jim can run CNN. Jim said okay, and sought permission for an another question. Trump didn't allow, and moved to the next journalist. That was when the White House intern came to take away the mike. 

There is nothing unusual in journalists wanting to ask supplementary questions. Each journalist feels lucky to be called to ask questions, and they want to ask as many as possible. Happens all the time with all the journalists and officials who address press conferences. Even in this one, others too asked or tried to ask such questions. Trump allowed some, cut many of them.

Journalists are paid to ask uncomfortable questions; and there was no need for Trump to lose his cool. The President should have just ignored Jim and stuck on with Peter Alexander of NBC, the next journalist. There was no need to say "you are rude", "you are terrible" etc. 

And to make matters worse for the President, Peter said, "In Jim's defense, I've traveled with him and watched him. He's a diligent reporter who busts his butt like the rest of us."

JIM ACOSTA BANNED FROM WHITE HOUSE

What followed was not just unprecedented, unwarranted too. Jim's pass that gave him access to White House premises was revoked. The reason cited was Jim had his hand on the female White House intern who tried to take the mike away from Jim.

CNN's Jim Acosta has press pass suspended by White House, Sarah Sanders announces (Fox News)

Trump Bars CNN’s Jim Acosta From the White House (New York Times)

Jim didn't look angry or rude; and Jim's arm did make contact with the intern's arm in his effort to keep the mike. But surely the contact wasn't intended.

It was very clear that that his pass was revoked only because Jim has been asking unpleasant questions, not just at this press conference but in others as well. It might also have been a warning to other journalists that they might too risk losing their pass.

Then another twist in the tale. WH Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders retweeted a video which is said to have been doctored to emphasise the arm contact.

Sarah Sanders accused of circulating 'doctored' video of Jim Acosta’s interaction with White House intern (Fox News)

White House defends doctored Trump-Acosta clip used to justify reporter's ban (The Guardian)

THIS IS AN OLD ISSUE

President Donald Trump's problems with the media is now many years old. Right from the campaign days he has had the belief that a good majority of the US media are liberal, left leaning, and against him. He used all sorts of words from "scum" and "dishonest" to "sleaze" to describe the "70 to 75%" of the media that are critical of him.

On the day he was sworn in itself there was an ugly spat -- Trump said the media selectively showed vacant areas to illustrate that the crowd that came for the Trump swearing-in was smaller than that for Obama swearing-in.

He has been using the word "fake news" for news articles that either he doesn't like or those that are critical of him. His anger took on a new dimension with his expression that media are "enemies of the people".

MEDIA IS THERE TO ASK QUESTIONS

Though media is not formally recognised as a part of the political system, it is an important social platform that carries all types of information: both plain news as well as interpretative, analytical and opinionated views.

Traditionally, news by definition is all about that is not going right in the society. Journalists by definition are skeptical and they are there to ask questions and seek answers; and sometimes they have an adversarial relationship with centres of power, especially the government. Journalists are always trying to catch officials in an spot. Conversely, the officials are aware of what journalists are up to, and they ensure that don't fall for the journalists' bait.

Trump calls spade a spade, and most of the time he doesn't care much for traditions, courtesies and diplomacies. So, his run-ins with the media are no surprise. Though he generally doesn't like most of the media, from what I have read, he keenly follows all the media. He knows the power of the media, and is quite conscious of the way he is portrayed in them.

BETTER TO IGNORE, NOT CONFRONT

Confronting and attacking the media doesn't help. It only makes matters worse. The best way that is adopted by smart and clever leaders when they handle media, especially a belligerent one, is to be transparent and inclusive with them. But when there are uncomfortable or difficult questions, the smart leaders parry them, if they can't come up with a diplomatic answer.

11 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Thanks for the wonderful post on Trump vs. Acosta. I saw the whole press conference. I beg to disagree with you. Jim Acosta was not asking questions to the President. He was grandstanding. He wants to argue with the President and make the press conference a debate. (If only some journalist in India argue like this with some important political leader, he would disappear in a week.) In my opinion Jim Acosta crossed the line yesterday.

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    1. Thanks Rajan for your sharing your views.

      Yes, I do agree that ideally journalists should only be asking questions in a press conference and not get into a debate. But often journalists, especially senior ones, do tend to go further and share their views as well with the interviewee.

      Most interviewees not only don't mind that but also acknowledge it as a sign of the journalist's understanding of the subject, and turn that into a healthy short discussion of contrasting viewpoints. But a few don't like that.

      What actually surprised me was that Trump was cool while answering the question on the immigrants; and the problem cropped up only when Jim wanted to ask another question.

      However, what I thought Jim shouldn't have done is to interrupt the President. That also many journalists do, which I think is better avoided.

      Any seasoned leader would have just put across his answers to the questions, and moved on. And not got the press pass revoked.

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    2. Pradeep, I agree with you. Whatever wrong Jim Acosta did in the opinion of White House, his press pass should not have been revoked.

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  3. The rumor is that the whole thing was staged to be a distraction from the losses his party had in the election on Tuesday. I don't know if that's true. The Republicans are well-versed in election tampering.

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    1. Hi Liz, I am sure that there would be such theories floating around.

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  4. At least someone is able to ask uncomfortable questions to the person in power. In India, I don't think journalists can even ask such questions to the head of the state/nation. Free speech is essential and journalists are the keepers of free speech. There is not much of a meaning in democracy if this basic right is denied, especially to journalists.

    Destination Infinity

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  5. Thanks, Rajesh for your views. Yes, journalists do have a very important and responsible role to play in a democracy.

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  6. I also agree that journalists have an important role in democracy and wise leaders encourage this.

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    1. Thanks, Donna, for the comments. The Press is referred to as the Fourth Estate, the other three being the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.

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  7. Hi Pradeep - a leader should not put someone down ... shows complete disrespect. We live in interesting times ... cheers Hilary

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