David Zurawik

After White House suspension of CNN's Acosta, no middle ground any more in battle to cover Trump

Even by the contentious standards of President Donald Trump’s generally troubled relationship with the press, what happened Wednesday at the White House between him and reporters from CNN, NBC, PBS and American Urban Radio Networks is truly shocking.

The president directed his greatest anger toward CNN’s Jim Acosta, a longtime target of his ire. The Trump administration on Wednesday night suspended Acosta’s credentials, a move the White House Correspondents’ Association denounced as “weak and misguided.” The group urged immediate reversal.


During an afternoon news conference at the White House, the president had berated Acosta, calling him a “rude, terrible person” for initially refusing to hand over the microphone to a White House aide and sit down after asking about an anti-immigrant TV ad that the president’s re-election campaign had placed on network and cable TV last week. The ad was widely considered racist and was taken down by NBC, MSNBC and Fox in response to complaints. CNN had refused to air it at all.

“I’ll tell you what, CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them,” a visibly angry Trump said to Acosta after the correspondent surrendered the microphone and sat down. “You shouldn’t be working for CNN.”


Acosta’s press credentials were revoked in the wake of the heated exchange.

When Acosta came back to the White House at 7:45 p.m. to file a report scheduled to air at 8, he was denied access and asked to surrender his credentials by a Secret Service agent, according to Acosta’s tweets.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted that Acosta’s press credentials had been suspended because of his interaction with a White House intern who tried to take the microphone from him earlier in the day.

“President Trump believes in a free press and expects and welcomes tough questions of him and his Administration,” her tweet said. “We will, however, never tolerate a reporter placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern.”

Acosta called the charge a “lie” on Twitter.

Video shows Acosta’s arm and the arm of the intern touching as she reaches for the mike and he reaches toward the president with his left hand while holding the microphone in his right. I don’t think any reasonable person would say he intentionally placed his hands on her.

When Trump next called on NBC News White House correspondent Peter Alexander, Alexander defended Acosta.

"In Jim's defense, I've traveled with him and watched him, he's a diligent reporter who busts his butt like the rest of us," Alexander said to the president..


"Well I'm not a big fan of yours either," Trump fired back.

But Trump, who earlier in the session had called out GOP candidates who did not “embrace” his support and lost in Tuesday’s midterms, wasn’t through battling with the media.

PBS White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor asked Trump about labeling himself a nationalist and what effect that might have on white nationalists.

"I don't know why you'd say that," Trump said. "That's such a racist question."

On more than one occasion during the session, Trump also told April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, to sit down. Ryan, a Baltimore native, is also a CNN political analyst.

“It’s such a hostile media,” he said as Ryan tried to speak.


In a statement released on Twitter, CNN said it stands behind Acosta and “his fellow journalists.”

"This President's ongoing attacks on the press have gone too far," the statement said. "They are not only dangerous, they are disturbingly un-American. While President Trump has made it clear he does not respect a free press, he has a sworn obligation to protect it. A free press is vital to democracy, and we stand behind Jim Acosta and his fellow journalists everywhere."

The press conference lasted about 90 minutes, and I have never seen anything like it in terms of a presidential vitriol and personal attacks on multiple reporters.

Some critics characterize Trump’s behavior as childish. His demeanor during this session was not childish at all. It was dictatorial, autocratic, angry and condescending. He repeatedly said, “That’s enough,” or “Sit down,” as if commanding underlings.

“There has been nothing close since Dan Rather and Richard Nixon,” said Mark Feldstein, University of Maryland, College Park broadcast journalism professor and author of “Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture.”

That confrontation took place in 1974 in Houston when the CBS newsman rose to ask a question of President Nixon.


“Thank you, Mr. President, Dan Rather, CBS News,” he said.

Rather’s presence was greeted by the audience in the hall with a mixture of applause and boos.

“Are you running for something?” Nixon asked sarcastically of Rather.

“No, sir,” Rather replied. “Are you?”

It was that brief, but given Rather’s history of conflict with Nixon and the fact that he went on to ask a tough question about Watergate, the exchange became big news.

And Nixon and Rather did symbolically come to represent the executive branch of government and the press in that moment. But their confrontation did not go on like those during the session Wednesday at the White House with Trump trying to bully several correspondents into submission.


“News the White House pulled Jim Acosta’s credentials is not an attack on one journalist but all of the press,” Rather tweeted. “There should be complete solidarity.”

What happened Wednesday was clearly an escalation of the battle between Trump and the press that officially got under way with that first press briefing when the White House claimed Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest in history.

It cannot be allowed to stand without being fiercely challenged, as the Maryland Delaware District of Columbia Press Association did Wednesday night.

“The Maryland Delaware District of Columbia Press Association condemns in the strongest words possible the actions of President Donald Trump’s White House for suspending the privileges of CNN reporter Jim Acosta after today’s televised Presidential news conference,” a statement from the organization said.

“The actions today against Mr. Acosta are a threat to Free Speech, reporters and violates the spirit and sanctity of a free press,” the statement continued.

“Further, several reporters of member organizations present during the press conference do not concur with the White House’s accusations against Mr. Acosta and videotape shows he never laid hands on anyone. He was a reporter asking a question and trying to do his job. Therefore, we can only surmise the real intention of the White House is to bully, intimidate and divide the press. We stand by Mr. Acosta and we stand with all journalists who stand up to this type of abuse from the government.”


Feldstein said, “The gloves are off.

“There’s not really any pretense on either side any more about it.”