Reporters like to tell stories, and they try to do it without becoming part of the tale. Jim Acosta has had little choice in the matter.
The journalist, whose profile has risen over the past two years while serving as CNN’s Chief White House Correspondent, has often found himself enmeshed in the headlines, particularly when the Trump administration in November of last year tried to block him from covering the president because the Commander-in-Chief often didn’t like the questions Acosta asked him at various events. Acosta later became a symbol of America’s belief in the First Amendment when CNN prevailed and got its employee reinstated.
Had CNN lost, says Acosta, “it would have been a radical change for our business,” with national and local politicians able to toss reporters out of public events simply because they asked impertinent questions. “It would have been a devastating blow to the First Amendment in this country.”
Acosta, 48 years old, has chronicled his time in the White House press corps in a new book, “Enemy of the People,” which he says he wrote “to remind folks of how high the stakes are right now,” and to suggest that Americans keep an eye on how journalists are treated by the government.
“I don’t want to hand off to our kids a country where it’s OK for the press to be called ‘the enemy of the people,’ and that might sound corny to some people – ‘You’re getting on your soapbox, Jim’ or ‘You are stepping outside your lane as a reporter.’ But I think that’s a perfectly fine position to make as a journalist and as an American,” he says in an interview at CNN’s New York headquarters. “We should not have people going around calling the press the enemy of the people, especially the President of the United States. The president is supposed to stand up for the First Amendment and stand up for the free press – not put us through the meat grinder. I’ll defend that. I feel fine about that.”
“Enemy” over the course of about 350 pages takes the reader into the White House briefing room and aboard Air Force One; into courtrooms and overseas ceremonies; behind the sideline conversations reporters have with the executives and officials they cover every day. Rather than lead with the incident that almost got him kicked out of the White House, Acosta starts from the beginning: the last day in the White House before Trump takes office. From there, readers get to meet Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Bill Shine, April Ryan, Peter Alexander and many of the people who have become ‘characters’ in a news cycle turned reality-show circus, as veteran journalists grapple with covering a White House that often seems dysfunctional and can’t be counted on to give an accurate account of national events.
The book contains a few surprises, including an interview with White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who acknowledges some differences she has with recent policies.
Like ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson during the Reagan administration, Acosta has drawn attention for his proclivity to ask nervy questions of the nation’s top officials. “Were you lying to us at the time, or were you in the dark?” he asked once of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House Press Secretary. ‘No, sir, there are no fine people in the Nazis” he reminded Trump after the president suggested a clash of protesters and right-wing elements in Charlottesville “had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
“Would I do everything the exact same way if I did it over again? Probably not,” he says. “But at the same time, we’ve been thrust into this unprecedented environment where the president is calling us ‘fake news,’ and ‘enemy of the people’ and so on, and we are all just grappling with how do we cover this? How do we do the news when we have bull’s-eyes put on our backs? That is not an easy environment to do the news. It has been a challenge.”
The situation is causing some strain among the White House press corps. In the book, Acosta talks about April Ryan, the White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, and details some of the mistreatment with which she’s had to deal. He suggests his relationship with Fox News’ John Roberts has suffered since Trump tried to shut down a question from Acosta and instead let Roberts speak.
Acosta hopes dynamics between the White House and the press return to some sort of norm in the months or years ahead. While Trump supporters may cheer the current state of affairs, Acosta suggests they should instead call for restraint. What’s to stop a Democratic president from citing Trump’s example and shutting down someone from a conservative news outlet?
“I’m hoping that things have not changed irrevocably,” he says. “My hope is the next administration, Republican or Democrat, will say ‘We’ve got to get back to a situation where we have a more even-keeled relationship with the press.’ They know we have a job to do, and sometimes it can be an adversarial relationship. That’s just the nature of what we do.”
He thinks he has more in common with Trump’s base better than some White House officials. His parents divorced when he was five years old, and he was raised by a single mother who worked in restaurants. His father, who came to the U.S. from Cuba, worked in a supermarket. “I think I understand Trump supporters better than the president does, because of my background,” Acosta says, “We’re not strangers to hard work.”
And though more people may recognize him from the questions he’s asked of Trump, Acosta says he’s not looking to move into a different role at present. What does he hope to achieve in the future? “I’d like to take a vacation.”