Last week, CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta accosted White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders during the scheduled press briefing and insisted that Sanders provide a specific sound bite for the press. The incident was part of a larger issue revolving around the president’s use of the phrase “fake news” and a tweet the media believes he said the media was the enemy of the people. This topic has been all over the internet and discussed at length by the pundits and the professional talking heads ever since, but every time it is discussed, no one mentions the most disturbing issue: that of a “professional journalist” demanding a spokesperson say what he wants to hear.
Journalists are supposed to report the news in an objective manner. In an ideal situation, the reporter’s opinions and ideas are not detectible in a news story that is filled with facts and statements quoted from cited sources. In journalism classes, students are (or at least were) taught to avoid adjectives in news stories so as to avoid slanting the story. The assumption was that members of an informed society would form their own opinions based on objective information, and the free press could best serve the public by providing that objective information. Journalists did write their opinions, but they did so in the Op-Ed pages and in feature profiles; sections of the news dedicated to the opinions of the writers. These sections were clearly marked and labeled as opinion, so the reader could tell the difference between objective reporting and opinion. Yet in recent years, journalists are increasingly interjecting their own ideology and opinions in every story put out on TV, print and online, not just the Op-Ed. The practice is so widespread that it is almost impossible to find a truly objective news story anymore.
This trend seems to be stemming from a degree of self-importance that reporters have adopted in the last couple of decades. The Fourth Estate began to believe in their own importance as the “fourth branch of government” as overseer of the legislative, executive and judicial branches. While it seems that having transparence in government is a good thing and the news did facilitate that transparency, reporters began to shift the focus of their exposés on issues that the reporters felt were significant and they turned a blind eye to issues with which they agreed. One reporter once suggested that the media can make or break a president.
This is kind of putting the cart before the horse. If a president is doing something untoward or illegal, then objective reporting would reveal those transgressions and the people could take appropriate actions. Increasingly, however, it seems the press is trying to portray the activities of politicians as being illegal or immoral in order to sway public opinion against them. Such is the case with the supposed tweet.
President Trump tweeted “The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media.”
Members of the media were incensed by this supposed slight and Jim Acosta decided to do something about it by addressing it with Sanders.
Acosta did not ask a question, but made a demand cloaked in a request. “I think it would be a good thing if you were to say right here, at this briefing, that the press, the people who are gathered in this room right now, doing their jobs every day, asking questions of officials like the ones you brought forward earlier, are not the enemy of the people. I think we deserve that.”
Sanders refused to grant is demand and instead leveled a rebuttal wherein she called out times when the press vilified not just the president but her as well. Acosta, not happy at being denied his boon, whined on social media and his network led a charge accusing Sanders of doubling down on the “enemy of the people” statement.
They got it wrong. First, the president didn’t say that the media was the enemy…he specified the fake news media. Granted, that is a bit of a deflection, since all the media is guilty of proliferating fake news, but he never said any network or reporter by name, so Sanders had no reason to make the statement in the first place.
Secondly, Acosta has forgotten his place. He is a reporter who is supposed to cover the news, not make it. His opinion is irrelevant, even if he is butt-hurt by a supposed slight. It was a breach of decorum and civility to even address the issue in that manner. It would be one thing to ask for a clarification about the tweet, but to demand a retraction is too much. Reporters should never command a statement from their interviewees. Ever! That is not reporting. That is commanding. If the media is commanding specific statements from public officials, then they are no longer serving the people, they are directing policy and that is not their role. Dictators demand others adopt their ideals. Anyone who forces their ideas onto others is, in fact, an enemy of the people.
If Acosta and others in the media want to be thought of as a friend of the people, they need to stop alienating the people. Go back to objective reporting, keep themselves out of the story and avoid interjecting their ideals into their reporting. It’s journalism 101, or at least it used to be when journalism was a respectable business.