When Politicians Use Journalists As Piñatas

Sep 1, 2017

Watching Jim Acosta from CNN at work is both fascinating and grueling. As the White House correspondent for his network, his job is to lob questions about matters facing the country at both White House representatives and the president himself. And it can’t be easy to stand there and take the abuse when President Donald Trump declares “you are fake news” in response to a question. 

I would bet that every working journalist has a private, unwritten list of things they'd like to say in response to jerky behavior from a politician, but the unwritten also goes unsaid.

To Acosta’s credit, he stands his ground and continues to ask his questions, knowing the responses may be incomplete at best and hostile at worst.

It probably helps to know that he is not the first reporter to take such abuse, and he certainly will not be the last. There is a rich history of political figures belittling and ridiculing members of the news media; it can be productive in stoking the admiration and even votes of the political figure’s supporters. And there’s one key attribute that makes it attractive to the point of being nearly irresistible: the other side can’t fight back.

Or shouldn’t, anyway. Just about every reporter working today can remember some hard-bitten newsroom veteran giving one of the cardinal rules of the journalism business: “you’re not the story.” So when the person being questioned by a reporter resorts to responses ranging from “you’d better get your facts straight” to “why do you hate America?” …all the reporter can do is politely continue to ask the question until it is answered. 

I would bet that every working journalist has a private, unwritten list of things they’d like to say in response to jerky behavior from a politician, but the unwritten also goes unsaid. Can you imagine what would happen if reporters were free to fight back? The opinion of journalism as an institution is already low enough in this country (somewhere above Congress, but below banks [Gallup 2017]). Getting into screaming matches with people who might even deserve some screaming can only damage the public view of journalism further. 

And politicians and their handlers know it. They get to swing freely at the people they see as their tormentors, knowing those people are bound by a code of ethics that prevents their swinging back. The master of the art form is Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House and one-time presidential candidate. His campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 rose on the strength of his performance in several debates, in which Gingrich often railed against either the questions or the questioners, to the delight of supporters in the audience and around the country. The tactic works especially well with an audience that believes the old-line media—the major TV networks, NPR, and the major newspapers—lean to the left and oppose everything Republicans want to do. Exploiting that feeling made Fox News Channel a major power in the country.

Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, when she makes news at all anymore, often revives her time-tested phrase “lamestream media” to ridicule the mainstream media. She learned a long time ago that it is far easier to take offense to a question than to answer it fully and completely. Watch how the designated spokespeople for the White House respond to some questions. Listen to the question, argue with the premise, question the intentions of the reporter, and then give an incomplete answer. 

That brings us back to the president himself, who slings the term “fake news” with impunity. Which is the rough equivalent of putting fingers in each ear and singing “la la la la la” to block other sounds. The people asking the questions are only human, just trying to do their jobs at collecting information. They may seem rude to people who like and support the people being questioned, but the conduct of our government needs scrutiny (and sunlight) to function in the best interests of the American people. So the questions will continue. And given the current state of political discourse in America, politicians will likely continue to treat the questioners like piñatas as well.

So have some compassion for Jim Acosta and his colleagues in the White House media corps. They’ll continue to ask the questions and be abused for it, and we’ll never get to hear what they might say if they were allowed to respond in kind.

Geoffrey Riley began practicing journalism in the State of Jefferson nearly three decades ago, as a reporter and anchor for a Medford TV station. It was about the same time that he began listening to Jefferson Public Radio, and thought he might one day work there. He was right.