The Acosta affair: An unpopular opinion

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Emily Maitlis -Presenter, BBC Newsnight @maitlis on Twitter

We were on our way to the White Press press conference yesterday morning – when we got redirected. Disappointed at the time, I am now relieved we were.

There is only one memorable moment from that press conference – and that was a one minute 20 seconds fight between the president and the CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta. No other question really got a look in.

I watched the whole thing live, of course. It unsettled me.

And here’s why: when you look at the clips that have been running today, and the responses on social media, Jim Acosta emerges as the hero of the hour. The Man Who Stood Up To Trump. The Fighter for all our press freedom.

I don’t know Jim. He seems like a good guy. But I feel the episode needs context which is sorely lacking.

Jim Acosta was called on by the president to ask a question.

I’ll say that again. He was called on by Donald Trump to ask whatever question he liked. And when he’d finished asking one, he then asked another – with interruption follow-ups in between.

It was only when he attempted his third question – or possibly fourth depending on how you define the follow-ups – that the president got angry and asked him to sit down.

There ensued a tussle with the mic. And weirdly ridiculous words from the president about him being a rude and terrible person.

I’m pretty sure Acosta never intended to “mistouch” the young female intern. He was just trying to hold on to the mic.

My point is this – the scene was an incredible bit of theatre. We couldn’t take our eyes off it. It just went on and on.

You could argue the president came looking for it – he does well, electorally, when he’s berating the press.

But make no mistake. The media also does well when they are baiting the bear. The urge to poke can sometimes seem irresistible.

So let’s take a step back. What happened in that room was not the ultimate fight for press freedom. This wasn’t someone risking life and limb against a regime where freedom of speech is forbidden. This was a bloke sitting in a room full of colleagues who were all trying to ask questions too.

This was a man who’d had his turn and had been told he couldn’t hog the whole time.

I’ve been in high-pressure press conferences. And the art is to ask the single most succinct question that will land you the best possible response.

The achievement is not meant to be one of endurance.

There are plenty of things to berate in the behaviour, language or ethics of Donald Trump. But this moment was not one of them. Pull him up for his lies, yes. But not for wanting to widen the conversation.

The president took CNN’s question and then took more. And when he tried to move on, he couldn’t. Once the Acosta incident was over, he went on to take questions from journalists from all over the world – for a total of 90 minutes.

What worries me is the wider question of how Trump and the media interact.

When you watch the US morning shows – and evening shows come to that – what you notice is how things have changed.

Even those who were not originally taking sides are now nailing their colours to the mast. Fox and MSNBC have always played to their own bases. But now CNN, too, has editorialised its evening slot with Chris Cuomo – who gives us an essay, a comment piece, on whatever is getting him fired up.

It’s a good watch actually. And makes you engaged.

But make no mistake – it’s the same game that Trump is playing. The one they pretend to despise. If DJT can rally his base – then – goes the logic – why shouldn’t TV do it too.

It works for viewing figures in the same way it works for electoral success. It works, in other words, for those who like their chambers echoed – but it’s an odd place for news to sit.

So yes, those in the media – the enemy of the people – know how the president likes to portray them. We know he picks fights with individuals. We know he may even revoke a White House press pass (that won’t last – mark my words).

But we also know this: Never in the history of America has a president so loved the media and the air time we devote to him.

And never in the history of America has the media got so much entertainment from one president.

 

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