Former press secretaries Fleischer, McCurry agree on Acosta behavior: 'I wish he would stop'

Rules and decorum are everywhere in society. In baseball, a player can argue with an umpire only for so long, and within reason in terms of language. Same goes for tennis — just ask Serena Williams. Yet, when it comes to White House press briefings, the unwritten rule has always been this: One question, perhaps one follow-up before the president or press secretary moves on to another of the dozens of reporters in the room. 

The reasons: Time is finite. Some reporters in the back of the room often aren't afforded a question at all. And, most importantly, a presidential press briefing shouldn't perpetually center around one reporter. 

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Yet, for nearly two years, it almost always does center around one: CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta. 

Acosta is again the center of the news. A federal judge will rule on a suit Friday that CNN filed this week against the White House for pulling Acosta’s press credentials after a heated exchange with President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff MORE during a press conference.

By now, many of you are aware of Acosta's modus operandi: Don't initially ask a question but, instead, share a perspective, a position, and then proceed to debate the press secretary or president. Only after that pointless exercise, done solely for theatrics, does he ask a question. And another. And when whoever at the podium attempts to move on, keep asking questions, all in the name of the First Amendment.  

Other reporters in the James S. Brady briefing room or in the White House East Room, where President Trump held his last press conference on Nov. 7, do not engage in this behavior. But Acosta does. And after the press briefing is over, the main topic of conversation is almost never anything having to do with policy or of interest to the public but, instead, highlights/lowlights of Acosta trading volleys with the press secretary or the president. 

The hot mess of the last two years that is the relationship between Acosta, 47, and the White House came to a crescendo when Acosta refused to yield the floor or the microphone used by reporters to ask questions. This, despite the CNN reporter eventually asking four questions while the average number asked that day was less than two each (68 questions from 35 reporters). 

It's why a logical proposal by former White House press secretaries should be seriously considered by the White House press office and the president:  No longer allowing press briefings to be broadcast live. 

Mike McCurry, who served as press secretary under President Clinton, decided in 1995 to open daily presidential press briefings to television cameras. McCurry tells The Hill that it is a decision he now regrets, given the grandstanding that occurs on a regular basis. 

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"The mistake I made was to allow live broadcasts of the daily press briefing," McCurry said. "It's a ‘briefing,' not a live news event. Reporters should gather the information, use it as they see fit in their reports, but check the information against other sources with knowledge and information."

"I should have said that the briefing was available for broadcast but embargoed until it was over," he said. “… I regret not imposing that rule, to this very day." 

Ari Fleischer, who served in the same capacity under President George W. Bush, echoed McCurry sentiment while slamming Acosta for abusing his privilege as a White House correspondent. 

"I’ve always seen the briefing room as an intensely and incredibly challenging place where no one should go into if their skin isn’t thick and they don’t give the other party a lot of latitude," said Fleischer, who once served as a CNN contributor and was signed by Fox in 2017. "But Jim Acosta takes the latitude and busts it wide open, and damages himself and the rest of the press corps because he goes too far."

"And nobody else does what Jim Acosta does," he added. "Never in my time at the White House was there ever a reporter who acts like Jim Acosta does, by becoming such an editorialist in the room."

McCurry agreed with Fleischer about Acosta: "I think he, like many in the press, performs for the cameras and for his executive producers. I wish that would stop." 

But McCurry added that while he disagrees with the way Acosta conducted himself, he also argues the White House should not get to decide who in the press "gets passes to come work there." 

Regardless of the court ruling, in the court of public opinion, approving of the way Acosta conducts himself has little to do with him and everything to do with your feelings toward the president. 

If you're anti-Trump, Acosta is simply an aggressive reporter speaking truth to power and who won't take “no” for an answer. If you're pro-Trump, Acosta is an adult member of the high school debate team who acts more like a resistance activist or protester than as a serious reporter. 

McCurry summed up matters in a pithy, precise manner when asked how he thinks all of this ends, long after the court has its say: "With the election of the next president." 

Joe Concha (@JoeConchaTV) is a media reporter for The Hill and host of "What America's Thinking."

This piece has been updated.