President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE has no use for CNN or for its White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Thus, it was hardly a surprise when Trump refused to take a question from a persistent Acosta at a recent news conference and used the opportunity to bash CNN. No real news there, given Trump’s unnecessary but consistent criticism of CNN.
Trump proceeded to call on Fox News Channel’s John Roberts to ask a question, and FNC’s Roberts dutifully inquired about America’s relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Roberts himself then suddenly became the subject of the news to many of his reporter colleagues, simply for asking his prepared question. Roberts’ sin, according to the journalism establishment, was his failure to immediately defend CNN from the Trump attacks.
Every minute of a presidential news conference is important, and there are more newsworthy matters to cover than Trump’s running CNN clash, which just doesn’t move the news-o-meter anymore. There was no need for Roberts to intervene in the Trump-CNN fuss. The reality is that any protest from Roberts would have been wasted time. Trump is not going to change his attitude about CNN.
The fact that Roberts now works for Fox likely explains some of the press establishment’s anger in this matter. FNC has always been the illegitimate child of the media industry, daring to brand itself as “fair and balanced,” an obvious critique of its competitors. Then FNC found an audience, and it has dominated cable news ratings for 20-plus years. Roberts previously worked at both CNN and CBS. He could well have escaped his public flogging had he still worked at one of those places.
Fox News itself received occasional public criticism from President Obama and his administration back in the day. That’s the way of the world in the politics-vs.-media arena. Presidents who run press conferences choose which reporters get to ask questions and can criticize or ignore media outlets as they choose.
The journalism industry generally failed to stand up for FNC during those Obama years, although Jake Tapper, then at ABC and now one of CNN’s stars, did challenge the Obama press secretary about its labeling of FNC as “not a news organization.” That was an earlier method for an administration to make a “fake news” charge.
Then there is the matter of Acosta, who has positioned himself as a leading press antagonist of the Trump presidency. Good for Acosta to want to challenge the current administration, but his theatrics have mounted to the point where he is now part of the news, as he was at the recent press conference in Britain.
Yet, Acosta, who has insulted Fox News as “state-supported media,” expects an FNC reporter to defend him in a live television event. Acosta’s criticism of FNC is his prerogative, of course, but it comes off as clumsy for a guy who is supposed to be a reporter, and not a commentator. Further, while Roberts was expected to defend all of the many fine journalists at CNN, Acosta’s “state-TV” comment essentially insults FNC’s real journalists such as Bret Baier, Shannon Bream and Shepherd Smith. FNC’s reporters are clearly not in the same category as Trump’s flattering commentators, such as Sean Hannity.
This kind of intra-media squabbling disappoints the American citizenry. It causes news consumers to lose faith in the journalism industry. Seeing journalists arguing with each other suggests the news industry is more interested in playing out polarized range-wars than serving as public surrogates who are supposed to be informing citizens about news issues of substance.
CNN and the news industry as a whole have plenty of avenues to rail against Trump’s mistreatment of the press — and, clearly, Trump does mistreat and disrespect the press. Roberts need not be the focal point of the journalism industry’s defense. There is something to be said for journalists to collectively support each other in the face of government pressure, but a presidential press conference is an ineffective choice of venue for that effort.
Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a professor of communication at DePauw University.