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Just Sit Down: The Role of Interrogative Journalism in the Trump Era

President Donald Trump paced around the podium as Jim Acosta, CNN’s White House correspondent, pressed his point with question after question to the leader of the nation on why a caravan of Central Americans seeking asylum at the U.S. border were being referred to as an “invasion.”

The president bellowed, “You are a rude, terrible person! [...] That’s enough. Put down the mic. Sit down.”

An astonished world watched the press conference, not for any content disclosed by the administration, but for the tone, style, and decorum of the participants. Acosta is no stranger to confrontations with the President and his staff, since wars of words between Acosta and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House Press Secretary, are common. However, on this day, Acosta sought a direct confrontation with the President as he tried to do what many before him in the press have tried to do—seek answers to difficult questions.

The video of Trump and Acosta’s feud on this particular day has been viewed on YouTube over two million times—a test of wills between two very strong-willed men. To understand Acosta’s frustration, one has to consider earlier comments from the President and his staff that referred to the media as the “enemy of the people.”  Throughout history, dictators and autocrats have branded the press using similar terminology, some then going as far as jailing or executing journalists, so it is concerning to see a sitting U.S. president acting in such a way.

Following the interaction, the administration forced White House Security to ban Acosta from access to the White House and presidential press conferences by taking away his “hard pass” that he has held under multiple administrations. They claimed they did so because Acosta was deemed to be out of line and allegedly acted in an aggressive manner toward a White House intern—a claim that came to light as entirely false.

To make matters worse, on Nov. 7, Sanders released on her Twitter page a doctored video making Acosta appear as though he acted in a far more aggressive manner than he had in reality.

“The edited video looks authentic: Acosta appeared to swiftly chop down on the arm of an aide as he held onto a microphone while questioning President Trump,” says Drew Harwell of The Washington Post. “But in the original video, Acosta’s arm appears to move only as a response to a tussle for the microphone. His statement, ‘Pardon me, ma’am,’ is not included in the video Sanders shared.”

This begs the question of whether the Trump administration truly sees any real distinction between what they call “fake news” and what is actually fake news. Will any reporting that speaks ill of an administration, regardless of how much truth it holds, be deemed fake news? Or will the Trump administration be able to own up to their own role in the proliferation of what is truly fake news? The tweet that Sanders shared with the doctored video currently has at least 31,000 retweets and 13 million views.

“The most dangerous type of fake news and reporting and evidence is when you get into the fine details, the nuanced things that are shaped to present a certain viewpoint or decision or news a certain way," says journalist Shane Raymond from Storyful. “It’s not AI-generated or completely false. It’s something that’s real but has been literally stretched [...] and molded into weaponized evidence.”

Trump attempts to defend his rhetoric by explaining that he believes these news outlets have always had a liberal skew and views consistent with the Democratic Party and that they have unfairly criticized him and understated the success of his policies. However, the White House press corps has pointed to numerous instances of the President and his staff verbally abusing reporters, including recently calling many female reporters “stupid” and habitually demanding they “sit down” when White House staff do not like the question being asked. These incidents are clear evidence of an administration hostile to the press in general.

Trump’s punishment of Acosta seems vaguely familiar as we remember the days of the famed White House correspondent Helen Thomas, the first female member of the White House Press Corps and a masterful interrogator of sitting presidents and their cabinet. During one of George W. Bush’s press conferences, Thomas challenged the President on the Iraq War, calling him one of the worst presidents in history.

Thereafter, Thomas lost her front row seat at Bush’s press conferences and when asked why she had been moved to the back row, she replied, “They didn’t like me…I ask too many mean questions.”

One question still hotly debated is whether or not members of the White House press corps should be assertive in their request for answers on issues that the administration may not like but about which the public desperately needs answers. Further, is it a sign of dogged determination to ask sequential questions of an administration that is being dodgy in its response, or is it more so solid journalism to press for an answer—even to the point of possibly being considered impolite?

This administration has branded CNN and other networks firmly demanding answers and reporting unflattering but seemingly earnest information on the actions of the administration as “fake news.” None of us can forget the tremendous publicity given to mass presidential rallies that branded the networks as such and gave rise to endless cartoons of Trump knocking out the so-called “fake news media.”

Does the media owe any responsibility to the administration to be gentle in its inquiry, to be reticent to ask follow-up questions that makes an administration uncomfortable, or should it stay true to its long history of healthy tension with its subjects and press on with the business of accountability and truthful display no matter who the administration is? Should the public even care if their questions appear mean in nature as long as they hold the elected official’s feet to the fire? Who is the standard bearer on these questions? And if the press don’t ask these tough questions, then who will “speak truth to power”?  

In these times, more than ever before, it is imperative to ask ourselves, what do we intend the goal of the news media to be? Those in office might want the media to serve as a shining spotlight, hitting all the right angles and making everything seem perfect within a sitting administration. However, the American public deserves to know the truth about each administration and those holding office or filling these cabinet positions.

As we see during a time when all the branches of government are controlled by one political party, there is often no one left to challenge the rhetoric or actions of the executive branch other than the press. So while Acosta’s tone and tenor may not have been welcomed by this administration, it is imperative that his voice never be silenced. Not for this administration, nor any other. Not in this democracy. Not in this nation.

Thankfully, the U.S. District Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., agreed, and Acosta’s pass, with full access to the White House to do his job, was restored. However, the administration has put in place a new rule that each reporter will now be allowed to ask only one question unless invited to ask another by the speaker. It is intended to restore “decorum” to the press corps. I wonder how we will restore decorum to the speakers.