The Media Today

Jim Acosta’s hollow victory

November 20, 2018

It was a climbdown. After a court ordered the temporary return of CNN correspondent Jim Acosta’s White House credentials on Friday, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and comms chief Bill Shine warned they would revoke them again the minute the order expired. Yesterday, however, they wrote Acosta with a “final determination” to restore his pass, dropping the threat. In response, CNN quickly ended its lawsuit over the pass, calling it “no longer necessary.” Reporters and commentators, meanwhile, hailed a clear defeat for the White House. “In effect, WH just surrendered,” The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi tweeted. “Great news!” the Society of Professional Journalists exclaimed, also in a tweet. Later, CNN political analyst David Gergen called the U-turn “a significant victory for CNN and for the country.”

The decision did not come without conditions, however. Sanders and Shine laid out a series of briefing room rules they say Acosta and others must obey going forward; if they do not, they risk the “suspension or revocation” of their credentials. The rules state that reporters may ask only one question before yielding the floor; that follow-up questions may only be permitted at the discretion of the White House; and that “yielding the floor” may include physically surrendering the microphone to a staffer. Friday’s court order that the administration reinstate Acosta’s pass was premised on a lack of due process. The White House clearly hopes its rules will protect it from this logic in future.

ICYMI: Jim Acosta, enemy and selfie trophy

CNN’s victory is thus part of a more complicated picture. In an email last night, Jonathan Peters, a media law professor at the University of Georgia and CJR’s press freedom correspondent, hailed the restoration of Acosta’s pass as “significant and positive”—especially since its revocation was “in flagrant violation of the constitution”—but also called the White House’s new rules “a club to use against journalists.” In particular, Peters worries that the administration will wield that club on outlets it doesn’t like. “The rules don’t discriminate, on their face, between CNN, and Fox News, and The New York Times,” he wrote. “But news organizations will need to be vigilant against discriminatory enforcement.”

Peters is clear that discrimination of this type would likely not hold up in court. “It’s critical to understand that the White House can’t suspend or deny credentials on the basis of the content or viewpoint of a journalist’s reporting,” he said. “That is a substantive First Amendment violation… I wouldn’t want the White House to think it could do whatever it wanted as long as due process was satisfied.”

There are other, less legalistic reasons to see the restoration of Acosta’s pass as a hollow victory, however. Aside from a court order affirming due-process rights, it’s not clear that Acosta, CNN, or the press corps as a whole gained much from this sorry episode. The White House, by contrast, won two weeks’ free airtime for its divisive anti-press rhetoric, and a pretext, however flimsy, to curb reporters’ questions—all while avoiding a definitive ruling on First Amendment grounds. That’s not to say the White House won on the issue at hand; it did not. When it kicked out Acosta, many press advocates called for an unflinching legal response, and that’s exactly what CNN delivered. The fight was necessary. But it probably wasn’t a cause for triumphalism.

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The media bandwidth the Acosta episode consumed could have been used more productively; on the fires in California, for example, or on the Thousand Oaks mass shooting, or on midterms fallout. At the time, commentators speculated that the White House had booted Acosta to deflect attention from the forced resignation of Jeff Sessions the same day. By that metric, perhaps the White House did win something.

Below, more on Acosta-gate:

  • Can, meet road: The Atlantic’s Scott Nover rounds up more legal reaction to the Acosta climbdown. One attorney, David Lurie, had a particularly interesting point: Because CNN chose to drop its lawsuit, White House threats to expel reporters in a bid to police their questions won’t be tested in court, at least for now.
  • Self-censorship? The Post’s Erik Wemple writes that the new White House rules could have a chilling effect on press freedom. “Will reporters run afoul of these new rules? Will they ask two questions when they’re allotted only one?” he asks. “Such technicalities may be beside the point: Reporters will be thinking about those rules and the hassles that come along with violating them.”
  • A WHCA tradition, part I: The White House Correspondents’ Association vowed to hold firm against the new rules. “For as long as there have been W.H. press conferences, W.H. reporters have asked follow-up questions,” it said. “We fully expect this tradition will continue.”
  • A WHCA tradition, part II: The WHCA also announced yesterday that a comedian will not headline its next annual dinner; instead, the historian Ron Chernow, who wrote the book behind the hit musical Hamilton, will be the featured speaker. Michelle Wolf, whose controversial routine last year clearly prompted the change, called the organization “cowards.”

Other notable stories:

  • The Times’s Edmund Lee splashes an extraordinary suggestion from Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s co-founder and CEO, that top digital publishers could merge to demand better terms from social media giants. While Peretti would not say with whom he might have had preliminary discussions, he did namecheck Vice, Vox Media, Group Nine, and Refinery29 as among those doing “interesting work.” In statements to the Times, the CEOs of Vox and Refinery29 seemingly left the door open to teaming up.
  • Over the weekend, BuzzFeed’s Steven Perlberg reported on a different industry plan to “gang up on Facebook and Google,” as media companies seek permission to bargain collectively with web platforms over content distribution, an option currently banned by antitrust laws. While the proposal “languished in Congress” after it was presented last year, Perlberg writes, “with resentment against Big Tech at an all-time high in Washington and Democrats set to take control of the House, news executives are starting to believe they now have another shot.”
  • A chaser from the frantic Facebook news cycle: Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan says Mark Zuckerberg should, at the very least, relinquish his role as the company’s chairman, giving its board more independence to check his power as CEO.
  • For CJR’s print issue on race and journalism, Alice Driver writes about the benefits—and challenges—of translating stories to reach new readers.
  • Last week, I wrote that much early coverage failed to situate the California wildfires in the context of climate change. Yesterday, Mat Honan, BuzzFeed’s San Francisco bureau chief, showed how it should be done in a striking piece casting the fires as a defining moment. “In California, in mid-November of 2018, it became as clear as it did in New York in mid-September of 2001 that what was a once-distant threat has now arrived,” Honan writes. “Many factors made the situation what it is—a sprawl of homes slung into the wilderness, for example, and fire management practices. But the most salient cause is climate change… We have built our homes in canyons and on hillsides that resemble chimneys. And now it doesn’t seem like there’s any way out.”
  • And CJR’s Mathew Ingram spoke with Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, whose crowdsourced news venture, WikiTribune, laid off its entire journalistic staff in October. WikiTribune’s “structure, including restrictions on who could publish news, seemed to give would-be contributors the impression they were second-class citizens of the service—that their job was to submit content that would then be fixed up by professional journalists,” Ingram writes. As Wales told him, “That’s not the wiki way.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.