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‘A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America’: Jim Acosta lectures at the Mahaiwe

"A new kind of president requires a new kind of playbook for citizens and for journalists. As reporters, we now exist to both deliver the news and defend the truth." --- CNN reporter Jim Acosta

Great Barrington — If it is true, as ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus once said, that in war, truth is the first casualty, then we’re in the middle of a monumental battle.

That seemed to be the message of Jim Acosta, the controversial CNN reporter who appeared at the Mahaiwe Friday evening (May 24) to promote his new book, The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America, and deliver the annual Mona Sherman Memorial Lecture for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College.

Though he’s been a radio and television journalist since 1993, Acosta is best known as the thorn in President Donald Trump’s side, mostly during news conferences where the two have suffered through a contentious relationship.

Harper Collins executive Lisa Sharkey, daughter of the late Mona Sherman, the former OLLI president, introduces Acosta. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Let me state upfront that I’m not a fan of celebrity journalists like Acosta — or, for that matter, celebrity academics like Neil deGrasse Tyson. Too often it seems they are more interested in promoting themselves than actually practicing their craft. And just by showing up, celebrity journalists become part of the story.

In Acosta’s case, as a White House reporter for CNN, he developed a reputation as a tough questioner early on after Trump’s election. As Acosta suggested several times, Trump is a voluminous liar, who has, according to the Washington Post, made more than 10,000 false or misleading claims since his inauguration.

“A new kind of president requires a new kind of playbook for citizens and for journalists,” Acosta read in prepared remarks to a packed house in the Mahaiwe. “As reporters, we now exist to both deliver the news and defend the truth.”

True enough. The sheer volume of the lies spilling out of Trump’s mouth present a challenge to news organizations — both in terms of the strategy of calling him out and in the time-consuming burden of fact-checking him.

Jim Acosta covering at a campaign rally for Donald Trump at the South Point Arena in Las Vegas. (courtesy Gage Skidmore)

But I’m not sure the “new playbook” Acosta speaks of should include his confrontational style. The temptation in dealing with a bully like Trump is to fight fire with fire. What I’m hearing is, according to Acosta’s new Trump playbook, journalists should act almost as rudely as the president does when they hold him to account. But as a wise person once said, never wrestle in the mud with a pig. You will get dirty but the pig will love it.

In employing this new style, Acosta has carved out a niche for himself professionally. Few people knew who he was before he started covering the Trump White House and antagonizing the commander-in-chief at every turn.

What is to be gained, for example, by arguing with Trump over what constitutes an “invasion” of immigrants, as Acosta did in the video below of a White House news conference last November, when there are so many other more pressing policy issues — like actual immigration policy itself — that he should be questioned about? About the only answer I can think of is it makes for good television.

 

The upside for Acosta is it that, even if it isn’t particularly good journalism, these kinds of confrontations build his brand. After all, if he hadn’t engaged Trump in this way, would Acosta have scored a book deal from Harper, or be granted release time from CNN to travel the country on speaking tours? And by going after him in this manner, Acosta has provided the president with a valuable foil that feeds Trump’s redneck base.

Acosta rightly condemns Trump’s use of the words “enemy of the people” to describe news media outlets that cover him aggressively. The phrase has a long and ugly history, dating back to ancient Rome and on to Hitler, Stalin and Hugo Chavez.

I have no doubt that Acosta finds “enemy of the people” offensive. Any journalist would. Any decent American would. But every time Trump utters the phrase, Acosta must see dollar signs. Indeed, if Trump wins a second term, would not Acosta stand to benefit financially? So many books to sell and so little time …

The CNN journalist has engaged in heated debates with a number of Trump administration officials, including the hapless Sarah Huckabee Sanders about “enemy of the people,” and the loathsome racist Stephen Miller about the meaning of the words on the Statue of Liberty.

Again, those scenes make for great television, but these kinds of exchanges do little to advance the policy debate. They do, however, advance the cause of television journalists who want to write books.

That said, I agreed with much of what Acosta said during his half hour speech and during the Q&A afterwards. I also commend OLLI for shedding light on the First Amendment and attracting a big name that drew people into the historic venue to engage in a dialogue about this important subject.

Acosta noted that while the Berkshires are not exactly close to Boston, whenever he visits Massachusetts, he is always reminded of President John F. Kennedy and his then-innovative practice of holding televised news conferences.

Acosta enjoys a light moment while telling the story of being accused of delivering a ‘karate chop’ to a White House intern. Photo: Terry Cowgill

He recounted his own experience at the aforementioned Trump news conference with a White House intern who attempted to take his microphone away after he questioned the president (see the above video or click here and fast-forward to 1:00). The incident resulted in the suspension of Acosta’s White House press pass — an action that was challenged by CNN and was later ordered reversed by a federal judge.

The White House subsequently shared on social media a doctored video of the incident that first appeared on the reprehensible website, InfoWars, which is run by the deranged Sandy Hook massacre denier Alex Jones. White House aid Kellyanne Conway said Acosta’s action “looked like a karate chop almost.”

“I don’t really know karate chops,” Acosta quipped. “Pork chops, yes. But karate chops, not so much. The only thing under assault that day was the truth.”

The retelling of the incident was especially timely after a doctored video surfaced this week — and was retweeted by Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani — of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi appearing to slur her words.

Acosta also recounted recent threats and actual acts of violence against journalists in the U.S. He noted that after GOP Congressman Greg Gianforte body slammed a reporter who also happened to be Acosta’s friend, Trump said at a rally that Gianforte was “my kind of guy.”

Audience members at the rally then jeered Acosta and other journalists with simulated violence, as Acosta recounted in a tweet at the time and repeated at the Mahaiwe seven months later.

“The incident … required me to have round the clock protection,” Acosta recalled. “Next day I was throwing a football with my son in the front yard with a security guard wearing a gun on his belt standing watch about 50 feet away from us. I thought, ‘Is this to be our fate?'”

And of course there was the Florida man who was arrested last fall after attempting to mail explosive devices to a dozen of Trump’s critics, as well as to the CNN offices in New York.

Acosta is interviewed by San Jose State University students as part of the 2018 William Randolph Hearst Award Presentation. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

I’ve been a journalist in one capacity or another since 1996 and, though I’ve had some unnerving experiences, I’ve never been threatened with actual violence before. Working as an editor in Dutchess County, New York, I had a mobster’s son march into my office and close the door behind him. Fortunately, all he did was yell at me about an unpublished draft editorial that had been leaked to him by one of my reporters.

I once rushed to the scene of a relatively minor auto accident in Millerton, New York, and began taking pictures from across the street. A burly firefighter spotted me and ordered me to stop at once. I kept firing until he rushed at me.

Another man in Canaan, Connecticut, was incensed that he was mentioned in a story I wrote about the economic decline of that town. In the middle of a string of insults, he paused to tell me he could see from my Facebook page that I had a beautiful family — an implied threat if ever I heard one.

Acosta, whose father was an immigrant from Cuba, also related a story about asking Cuban dictator Raul Castro why he held political prisoners. This was during a joint news conference in 2016 in Havana with President Barack Obama.

“Castro couldn’t believe his ears because a Cuban reporter couldn’t ask him that question but a Cuban-American reporter can,” Acosta said.

And there we have it. The First Amendment is what sets us apart from so many tinhorn dictatorships, plutocracies and fascist regimes. The fact that we have a president who is nostalgic for the old days and blusters about “opening up the libel laws” reminds us of how important it is to stay the course.

If nothing else, Acosta did a superb job of reminding us all of that.

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