Give back Acosta's White House pass, along with rules of engagement

There’s a long history of tensions between some members of the press and some U.S. presidents. And numerous examples of payback.

President Nixon nixed the Washington Post from the White House after the newspaper broke the Watergate story. The New York Times claimed it was denied a seat on Vice President Dick Cheney’s plane. President Obama declared war on Fox News, and booted from his campaign plane reporters from three newspapers that had endorsed his opponent, Republican John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show Meghan McCain: It's 'breaking my heart' Warren is leading Biden in the polls The Hill's 12:30 Report: Video depicting Trump killing media, critics draws backlash MORE.

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When it comes to White House briefings, there are traditions and practices. President Reagan called on raised hands. President Obama was said to stick religiously to calling on a pre-prepared list of reporters’ names, in order. Some reporters have attended White House briefings for years without ever being called upon; some get called upon almost every time. UPI reporter Helen Thomas covered 10 presidential administrations, starting with John F. Kennedy, and nearly always got the first question, as a matter of tradition; often, her question was ornery or challenging. (She retired in 2010 after making comments viewed as anti-Semitic.)

Preferential front-row seats used to be reserved exclusively for network reporters. Little bronze tags were affixed to the chairs; “CBS,” “ABC” or “NBC,” they read. Nobody else dared sit there. The networks liked that; other reporters, not so much.

When it comes to what’s acceptable behavior by reporters attending White House briefings, the rules are unclear. I only knew of informal understandings passed along to me by my employer or colleagues. They included:

  • Dress appropriately (no ripped jeans).
  • To try to get called upon; raise your hand. It’s also okay to speak out, maybe even to stand up.
  • When one reporter is called upon, the rest pipe down until another question is taken.
  • If recognized, you can ask about any topic.
  • You can be challenging, while being respectful of the office and the venue.
  • You can try to ask more than one question.
  • When the president decides he’s moving onto another reporter, you can try to slip in another question. If the president doesn’t bite, you sit down.

Things didn’t go that way with CNN’s Jim Acosta last week. President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocratic senator rips Trump's 'let them fight' remarks: 'Enough is enough' Warren warns Facebook may help reelect Trump 'and profit off of it' Trump touts Turkey cease-fire: 'Sometimes you have to let them fight' MORE recognized Acosta for a question. Acosta used his time to ask several questions and to give his own opinions but primarily, in his own words, to “challenge” or debate Trump. Trump gave responses (see transcript below) but when he wanted to move on, Acosta would have none of it.

Having taken part in numerous White House briefings over the years, I’ve never seen a reporter simply refuse to give up the floor. Nor have I seen a physical tug-of-war over a microphone.

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But did it cross a line? If so, was it the tone, the refusal to allow the president to move to another reporter, the physical contact Acosta had with the White House intern— or all of the above? To those who think Acosta was wrong, it’s a matter of common sense. But many argue that Acosta did nothing wrong, that it was Trump who was provocateur. In fact, some allege, it was Acosta who was assaulted by the White House intern.

Because there are wildly divergent interpretations of most any political event today, it seems as if we might benefit from an effort to set forth some rules in writing. Obtaining a White House pass would require the reporter to acknowledge his understanding of the rules and his intent to comply with them. Revoking a reporter’s White House pass — a drastic step, indeed — could then be justified (or not) by the White House citing the rules allegedly broken.

Of course, the notion of devising new, written rules raises an inherent conflict. It would seem to invite a level of control we, the press, would rather not have placed upon us.

I have two suggestions moving forward.

The first involves the microphone. When President Trump tried to move on, the White House intern tried to wrestle the microphone from Acosta’s grip. He didn’t want to give it up and it appears that, as a matter of reflex, he then chopped at the intern’s arm to break her away. Whether you think White House personnel shouldn’t be put in the position of forcefully retrieving a microphone from a reluctant reporter, or the reporter shouldn’t refuse to hand it over, it might be a wise idea to take the microphone out of the equation entirely.

The microphone isn’t used so that the president can hear the reporter — it’s so that the reporter’s voice can be recorded for broadcast purposes. The same thing could be accomplished by a technician operating a “shotgun” microphone (attached to a long arm), as was often done in the past. That way, there’s no intern handing out and retrieving a microphone, and no reporters hanging onto it as a way to keep the floor when their turn is over.

My second suggestion is more big-picture. Perhaps the White House should consult with the White House Correspondents’ Association to devise a general set of parameters. The rules should be practical and tradition-based, not heavy-handed. They should remain consistent with the ideas of transparency and a free press, while setting forth reasonable expectations in a dynamic, increasingly confrontational environment.

An alternative would be for the association to present the White House with its own reasonable list of acceptable practices or behavior by its members.

Why is this necessary? The Trump presidency has prompted the media to rewrite and reconsider its traditions, standards and rules. You can imagine the chaos that would result if one reporter talks or shouts indefinitely during a White House briefing — or any press conference. Nobody would get information if several journalists who aren’t called upon decide to stand and filibuster in objection.

So … give Acosta back his White House pass. Then let’s work to set forth what’s reasonable and fair to both sides in the future, so that hostilities and confrontation don’t risk overtaking a tradition that began 105 years ago.

*****

Here’s a transcript of the exchange between President Trump and CNN’s Jim Acosta. (Its technical accuracy may be slightly impacted by the fact that the two talked over each other so much.)

Acosta: Thank you Mr. President. I want to challenge you on, on one of the statements that you made in the tail end of the campaign, uh, in the midterms …

President Trump: Here we go …

Acosta: Well, if you don’t mind …

President Trump: That’s all right, come on ...

Acosta: Mr. President, that this caravan was an invasion. As you know…

President Trump: I consider it to be an invasion.

Acosta: … as you know, Mr. President, caravan was not an invasion, it’s a, it’s a, a group of migrants moving up from Central America towards the border with the U.S. …

President Trump: Thank you for telling me that, I appreciate it.

Acosta: … and, and why did you characterize it as such? Uh, and …

President Trump: Because I consider it an invasion. You and I have a difference of opinion.

Acosta: But do you think that you demonized immigrants …

President Trump: Not at all.

Acosta: … in this election to keep …

President Trump: No, not at all. I want them, I want them to come into the country but they have to come in legally. You know, they have to come in, Jim, through a process. I want it to be a process. And I want people to come in. And we need the people …

Acosta: Right. But your campaign …

President Trump: Wait …

Acosta: Your campaign …

President Trump: … wait, you know why we need the people, don’t you?

Acosta: Yeah.

President Trump: Because we have hundreds of companies moving in. We need the people.

Acosta: Right. Your campaign had an ad showing migrants climbing over walls …

President Trump: Well, that’s true.

Acosta: … and so on and it por— but it …

President Trump: They weren’t actors.

Acosta: They’re not gonna be doing that.

President Trump: They weren’t actors; well, no, it’s true. Do you think they were actors? They weren’t actors. They didn’t come from Hollywood.

Acosta: Right.

President Trump: These were, these were people, this was an actual, you know, it happened a few days ago, and uh …

Acosta: They’re hundreds of miles away, though. They’re hundreds and hundreds of miles away, that ...

President Trump: You know why? Honestly …

Acosta: … that’s not an invasion.

President Trump: … I think you should, honestly, I think you should let me run the country, you run CNN.

Acosta: All right.

President Trump: And if you did it well …

CNN’s Acosta: Let me ask ya …

President Trump: … your ratings would be much better.

Acosta: If I may ask one other question, Mr. President …

President Trump: Ok, that’s enough. (Calls on another reporter)

Acosta: If I may ask one other question, are you worried …

President Trump: Peter, go ahead. (To Acosta: That’s enough.)

Acosta: Mr. President …

President Trump: That’s enough!

Acosta: … I was gonna ask one other (White House intern tries to grab mic unsuccessfully) the other folks have had …

President Trump: That’s enough!

Acosta: Pardon me, ma’am, I’m, I’m … Mr. President …

President Trump: That’s enough!

Acosta: Mr. President, I one other question, may I ask …

President Trump: Peter, let’s go.

Acosta: Let me ask, on, on the Russia investigation, are you concerned that, that you may have …

President Trump: I’m not concerned about anything with the Russia …

Acosta: … that you may have indictments coming down?

President Trump: … investigation because it’s a hoax. That’s enough. Put down the mic.

Acosta: Mr. President, are you worried about indictments coming down in this investigation?

(The president steps away from the podium. Acosta sits and hands over the mic.)

President: I’ll tell you what: CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them. You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN. (To other reporter) Go ahead.

Other reporter: I think that’s unfair.

President: (Addressing Acosta) You’re a very rude person. The way you treat Sarah Huckabee is horrible. And the way you treat other people are horrible. You shouldn’t treat people that way. (To other reporter) Go ahead.

Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times bestsellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.”