Jim Acosta, CNN and the White House

I do not intend to debate who touched whom first or the truth of the CNN reporter “… placing his hands on a young woman…”.  Everyone can decide for themselves from the plethora of imagery out there.

To establish blame for this incident misses the greater point.

One of the tenets of good public affairs work is the relationship an organization or individual holds with the press.  For example, the Department of Defense provides office space in the Pentagon for the press.  Through repeated access to familiar faces and agencies, this encourages the establishment of positive relationships built on long-term trust between DoD officials and the reporters in the Pentagon press corps.  Such positive relationships facilitate the dissemination of truthful information from the government to the press, and helps to mitigate the adversarial relationship inherent to such relationships.

Bottom line: treating the press well because you have a long-standing trustworthy relationship helps your story be told accurately, fairly and in a timely fashion.  It’s in the best interest of the agency.

A mess kit. Yes, this was how the Army used to eat.

Conversely, an antagonistic relationship between the government and the press limits the ability of the government to put out accurate information.  If you’re pissing in a reporter’s mess kit, it makes sense that the reporter, being human, will be just as aggressive and antagonistic in return.

It is incumbent upon both the press and the spokesperson to conduct themselves with proper decorum.  And I will not excuse Acosta’s showboating, as my good friend Hank Minitrez characterized it.  Some may disagree with the characterization, but even if that was not his intent, he does come off that way.

And this is not the first time that a President has had a contentious relationship with a reporter.  Here’s an excerpt from an article in Houstonia that sums up the friction between President Richard Nixon and Dan Rather, then of CBS News:

“On March 19, 1974, Nixon stopped at Jones Hall on a national tour during the height of the Watergate scandal, making public appearances in an attempt to salvage his administration and reputation. ‘The president had received a warm reception in Chicago a few days earlier,’ wrote Ray Miller in his legendary 1982 history of the city, Houston. ‘He came to Houston to appear before a group he expected to be every bit as friendly.’ Unfortunately for Nixon, Houston-born and bred Dan Rather, then CBS’s White House correspondent, was in the audience that night.”


Here’s a video clip of the incident in question:

Adversarial?  Absolutely.  Unprofessional?  No.

Here’s my take.  Having been the spokesperson on occasion and attending many, many press briefings over my career, I always felt that it was my responsibility to present my messages in the most professional way I could. It was my job to keep the conversation professional so that I could tell the story I was there to tell.  I was lucky that I never had to deal with a belligerent reporter, but I was prepared to.

I expect that the government spokesperson to bear the burden of sucking up their private feelings and biases regardless of how a reporter behaves.  I expect the spokesperson to rise above the bad behavior and take the high road.  At the very least, move on and deal with the belligerent off-camera.  In my opinion, that’s the best – the only way to make sure your voice is heard.

Reporting at the White House should be aggressive.  The Fourth Estate’s job is the keep an eye on the goings-on in government.  Lord knows Congress won’t do it, so it’s up to the press.

Was Acosta showboating?  Does it really matter?

I’ll excuse an aggressive reporter long before I’ll excuse an aggressive spokesperson.  It’s the reporter’s job to be aggressive, not the spokesperson’s.

When the press is denigrated, minimized, or censored for any reason I get concerned.  The Fourth Estate is the last line of defense against a government gone awry.  The press NEEDS to be supported and encouraged to ask tough, embarrassing, even damning questions of our government officials when warranted.  I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to the press any day if the spokesperson refuses to take the high road as I expect them to.  And the high road doesn’t seem to be this administration’s strong suit.

P.S. Here’s some additional background on the Nixon/Rather relationship.