Jim Acosta’s mother recently sent him a text about his first stint as a weekend anchor for CNN. She loved his expression, perhaps with good reason. “I think my mother hasn’t seen my smile on TV in four years,” he says.
Wearing a grim visage might have come naturally. Acosta spent the past few years as CNN’s chief White House correspondent. The job is already a tough one that typically demands round-the-clock focus. In addition to covering the previous administration, however, Acosta frequently clashed with President Donald Trump on camera, and generated more than a few headlines about the network and himself in the process.
But Trump didn’t win a new term in office. And Acosta did.
The CNN veteran this past weekend was set loose on new terrain. As part of an overhaul of some parts of CNN’s daytime schedule, the network gave Acosta five weekend hours across Saturday and Sunday that he hopes to turn into a place for deeper dives into important stories and longform newsmaker interviews The move gives more weekend hours to two news veterans, Acosta and Pamela Brown. It’s his first crack at being a full-time anchor.
“I’m trying to move the ball forward on the weekends, which is sometimes tough,” Acosta says during an interview earlier this week. Some people saw him as confrontational in the past, he acknowledges, but he sees himself as a “a hard news guy. I like to see things covered that way. I was aggressive covering the White House, and I will be aggressive in trying to anchor the news on the weekends.”
Acosta is the latest in a parade of news personnel who get tied very closely to a particular set of headlines, and then must work to move on to new frontiers. He stood at the center of a historic clash between the White House and one of the biggest outlets that cover it. President Trump derided CNN on camera many times after Acosta asked him questions, and the White House tried to take away the correspondent’s press pass, setting in motion a landmark court case in which the WarnerMedia-backed news outlet took the Trump administration to court — and prevailed.
“We didn’t have a choice but to stand up for ourselves,” says Acosta of the White House press corps during Trump’s time in office, adding: “I do think that we were thrust into a position we didn’t want to be in, but I think it was the right decision.”
Being at the center of such an intense news cycle brings new exposure for on-air journalists, and sometimes, new opportunities. A young MSNBC correspondent named Ashleigh Banfield became strongly associated with coverage of New York City in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and soon began traveling the globe on behalf of the network. Arthur Kent’s coverage of the war in the Persian Gulf for NBC News won him the colorful sobriquet “Scud Stud.” Wolf Blitzer won renown for his time spent chronicling the Gulf War in Kuwait for CNN, which helped build a durable career at the network.
Yet the news cycle never stays fixed on a single moment. Eventually, a journalist must move on to other stories.
“It was a surreal experience,” says Acosta of the job he just left. “Your family worries about you. Your friends worry about you. I worry about my colleagues who are all going through it. But I’m ready to turn the page, and I think there is something to be said about being stronger in the broken places.”
He plans to use his recent past to augment his present. “I was telling one of our executives that my best stories are still to come,” says Acosta. “ I don’t think of the Trump presidency as the defining story of my career.”
His first weekend on air was spent giving viewers the latest details on coronavirus vaccinations and the Derek Chauvin trial. He also ceded time to correspondent Gary Tuchman, who delivered an in-depth look at young children who had volunteered to get vaccinated as part of a broader test. “I want to make sure the show is a place to showcase some of the great pieces our correspondents are doing during the week,” Acosta says. “I also relish the opportunity to have extra time to tell a story. I think the show is going to be an outlet for that.”
His theory is that weekend viewers are willing to give a little more of their time to watch, and will be interested in a 20-minute interview with a person in the headlines. Acosta also intends to tackle some of the bigger issues of the day, including how disinformation is passed along; the nation’s need for new infrastructure; healthcare; and immigration. He intends to work his source list from time spent covering Obama, Trump and Biden and book some guests himself when warranted. He also wants to examine some of the after-effects of Trump’s time in office. “The more sunlight we put on these crazy conspiracy theories and bad-faith efforts to spread disinformation, the better off the public is going to be,” he says.
His time on CNN won’t be relegated to Saturday and Sundays. Acosta has also been named CNN’s chief domestic correspondent and, as time passes, is likely to travel around the nation during the week.
On his first weekend, he signed off each evening by telling the audience he was “reporting from Washington.” He hopes viewers will still see him as a journalist who likes to wear out shoe leather. “I want to make sure that it’s still part of my DNA.”