The Milton S. Eisenhower (MSE) Symposium hosted Jim Acosta, CNN chief White House correspondent, on Tuesday. Acosta was the third speaker in this year’s speaker series, The Butterfly Effect.
Since joining CNN in 2007, Acosta has covered both the Obama and Trump administrations. He previously worked for CBS as a news correspondent, where he reported on the 2003 Iraq War, John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Acosta discussed how journalists have had to become not just reporters, but also defenders of the truth. He clarified that while most news outlets are “pro-truth,” this does not mean that they are “anti-Trump.”
“I know it may look like we are giving the President a hard time, but we just want to set the record straight.”
Acosta emphasized the need for a strong, free and independent news media capable of holding the government accountable for its actions. Especially under the current president, Acosta asserted that the press has been constantly facing enormous challenges.
He described a Trump rally he attended last fall in Montana before the midterm elections. At the rally, Acosta said he met a group of men who violently threatened him.
“At these rallies, the crowds have chanted ‘CNN sucks’ and ‘Go home Jim.’ We have been called ‘scum’ and ‘traitors’ and worse. The atmosphere is so intense and so voluble that we often have to race back to our cars after these rallies are over,” Acosta said.
Acosta has covered four presidential campaigns, but he asserted that this level of violence directed at the media is unlike anything he has ever seen before.
He also recounted a press conference in February 2017 at the White House when he questioned President Trump about his attacks on the press. The president’s only response was to insist that he had not attacked the press.
Right after the conference, Acosta said, he received a call from one of the president’s top aides who praised him for being very professional, which starkly contrasted Trump’s own behavior.
“I thought, ‘Wait a minute. He was just trashing me five minutes ago, calling me fake news, and now... I’m very professional?’ It occurred to me, and it was backed up by conversations with some of my several sources, that Trump’s attacks on the press at that time were part of an act,” he said.
However, though Acosta argued that Trump’s attacks on the press are fundamentally part of an “act,” he also said that Trump’s supporters are not aware of this.
Acosta focused on death threats against the press, describing how he and his associates at CNN have been constantly receiving death threats and violent messages in their social media and email accounts.
Acosta said that he and other members of his news team have tried to warn Trump of the consequences of these types of actions, but Trump has consistently ignored their appeals.
Acosta explained how this type of behavior has caused a butterfly effect, where other world leaders now also feel empowered to simply declare unfavorable news coverage “fake news.”
“Earlier this year, I was at the Rose Garden at the White House, and the President of Brazil stood next to President Trump and was referring to stories he did not like as ‘fake news,’” he said.
Acosta argued this climate of anger has gone past mere threats and has in fact created a world where it has become dangerous to tell the truth in America. He recalled when a Trump supporter sent pipe bombs to different groups that Trump had described as his opponents, CNN included, before the midterm election last fall.
Social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, have served as a jumping-off point for politically motivated threats, Acosta added. He recalled a threatening message a Trump supporter had sent to his Facebook account after a story had been published about impeachment. The message threatened to kill Acosta if Trump was removed from office.
Acosta also described a now infamous moment where Trump’s aides tried to take away Acosta’s microphone during a news conference after Trump had claimed he had already answered Acosta’s questions on immigration issues. The White House revoked Acosta’s press pass and banned him from the White House after he initially refused to give up the microphone.
“The only thing under assault that day was the truth,” Acosta said.
After about two weeks, a federal court ordered Trump to restore Acosta’s press pass, holding that the White House had violated his due process rights.
Acosta stated that an integral aspect of democracy in the United States is the ability the press has to ask hard questions, a right often stripped away in authoritarian states and dictatorships.
He attributed his appreciation for America’s freedom to his father, who came to America from Cuba only three weeks before the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“Back in 2016, I travelled back to Cuba with the President Barack Obama. I had a chance to ask Cuba’s leader at that time, Raúl Castro, about his government’s practice of jailing political prisoners,“ Acosta said. “Raúl Castro could not believe that a reporter was asking this type of question. A Cuban reporter could never get away with something like that. But a Cuban American can. Now, I’m a proud Cuban American, but I don’t want America to start acting like Cuba,” he said.
Acosta finished his talk by encouraging the audience to have faith in democracy and to defend their system of government. Acosta once again reminded the audience that the press is not the enemy of the people but rather their defenders.
“Our democracy is only as strong as the people who are willing to hold it accountable,“ Acosta said.
Acosta identified Elijah Cummings as one such individual. Acosta quoted the recently deceased Balimore congressman.
“In the great city of Baltimore, let us remember Elijah Cummings for asking the question, not just for journalists but for citizens too, ‘When we are dancing with the angels, they will ask: What did we do in this time to keep our democracy intact?’”
Freshman Yuwen Wang questioned CNN’s editorial stance as a news outlet and what she saw as the increased polarization of the news in America.
She said that while she understood that pursuing the truth must always be a priority, as Acosta contended, she believes that news sources such as CNN approach this goal in the wrong way.
“A lot of leftist news sources’ approach to finding the truth isn’t conducive to decreasing the amount of political turmoil we have in our country. The people they should be reaching are the people they are turning away by taking a very absolutist stance,“ Wang said. “It’s just hard to grapple with that. I see where they are coming from.”
Freshman Isabella Rocco attended Acosta’s talk to learn about his perspective on the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations. However, she questioned Acosta’s stance that the general level of hostility would decrease if someone other than Trump were to win the election. Rocco said she believes the damage has already been done.
“His experience in both the Obama administration and Trump administration gives him a unique position on the changing nature of the relationship between the presidency and news organizations in the country,“ she said. “I feel that these people who have been empowered might actually have a stronger backlash when [they have] a president who does not fit into the same rhetoric.”