CNN correspondent Jim Acosta has been released from his Trump administration imposed time-out and is now allowed back on the White House playground. Federal Judge Timothy Kelly ruled the White House failed to provide Acosta due process in revoking Acosta’s press access last week. Thus, Acosta has his White House press pass back in hand.
CNN, Acosta and his press colleagues are doing touchdown dances to celebrate what amounts to a two-yard gain. Acosta was welcomed back to the White House grounds by 50 of his press colleagues. A statement from CNN read in part, “Our sincere thanks to all who have supported not just CNN, but a free, strong and independent American press.” This is known in football as outkicking your coverage. Pretty much every red blooded American supports a free and functioning press. Not every American supports a journalist who wants to become a spectacle instead of report news.
Judge Kelly’s ruling was made on procedural grounds and failed to address any underlying First Amendment implications regarding a free press. The broader issue of whether Acosta’s First Amendment rights were violated in the revoking of his press credential will be considered by Judge Kelly in the coming days. Whichever way he eventually rules, the losing party will likely appeal and this matter could drag on for months.
The reality is the First Amendment’s narrow wording provides little guidance on how press freedoms are to be operationalized. There is no stated right to gather news, so Acosta doesn’t necessarily have a right to be in press conferences, let alone be called on. Acosta lost his press credential temporarily, but he was free to continue commenting on the news, so he wasn’t exactly silenced. Other CNN reporters maintained White House access, so the channel can hardly claim it was squeezed out as an organization. Pressers are designed to allow reporters to ask questions, not debate the President. Thus, the White House gets to establish the protocol. Still, the Trump administration’s clumsy and retaliatory banning of Acosta does appear to be targeting a reporter over content matters, generally considered a First Amendment no-no.
This entire saga has been a disturbing and unnecessary government vs. press struggle from the beginning. There are no winners, and the American citizens are the losers. President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE’s ongoing harsh insults of the press have become tired. The nation fully understands how Trump feels about the press, and constant reminders are hardly needed. Some of his ire, however, could well be justified. CNN has made little doubt how it institutionally views the Trump administration, and Acosta revels in being a leading antagonist. Every minute taken out of the news agenda to dwell on the Trump war with the media, sadly, is a minute that could have been used to cover issues about which Americans have real concerns.
CNN might love the anti-Trump theater created by the Acosta antics, but the extra publicity generated is not translating to increased ratings for the cable news pioneer, which still trails competitors Fox News Channel and MSNBC by large margins. CNN should seriously consider what role Acosta should play on the channel. He is no doubt an aggressive and passionate journalist, but he is also clearly now in a position where he is the subject of the news rather than a reporter of the news. According to most journalistic standards, that is not a good thing.
Acosta has often mixed his White House reporting with heavy doses of commentary and analysis. There is surely a place in news for such opinion presentation, but that place is normally taken by people who are identified as commentators, not by the supposed reporters of facts. CNN should give Acosta his own opinion show or assign him to do commentary on other CNN programs.
Media credibility has been in decline for years now, and the public is saying to the press, “This is not about you!” Acosta has a high profile as a White House correspondent, but he is now veering off into becoming an entertainment-style personality or political provocateur. Perhaps Acosta could celebrate his legal triumph with a victory lap around the White House press room, and then leave his press pass for another deserving CNN reporter who will cover the President and not try to be the focus of attention at press briefings.
Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter, and as a political media consultant.