Bad news and good ratings

Ysabela Golden

Like many other reporters in 2018, CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta is not unfamiliar to verbal sparring with President Trump during news conferences. Unlike other reporters, however, a brief fumble with an intern trying to take away his microphone resulted in Acosta having his White House “hard pass” taken away, prompting a weeks-long legal battle between CNN and the Trump administration.

During a high tension press conference on the results of the November midterm elections, Acosta held on to the microphone and continued speaking after Trump dismissed him and his line of questioning about the president’s description of migrant refugees as an “invasion.” Though his initial refusal to give up the mic could hardly be classified as polite, the exchange wasn’t notably ruder than countless encounters Trump and his administration has had with reporters in the past, and certainly not ruder than the insults Trump had for Acosta and a colleague who respectfully tried to defend him immediately afterwards. Nevertheless, when Acosta returned to the White House that night he was shocked to find a secret service agent barring his entry. 

“I never thought in this country that I wouldn’t be able to go cover the president of the United States simply because I was trying to ask a question,” he said in an interview afterwards. CNN, agreeing with their star reporter, launched a lawsuit against the White House that sparked national debate. Does the freedom of the press provided by the First Amendment protect a reporter’s access to the president? Does the president need a justification to bar “rude” reporters from the White House grounds? 

Federal judge Timothy Kelly recently ordered the return of Acosta’s pass on the grounds that the president and his team had not provided due process for its confiscation, settling the issue for the moment. But Kelly made it very clear he was NOT making a judgement on the First Amendment claims made by Acosta and CNN, and left it open as to whether or not Acosta could lose his pass a second time if due process was actually provided. The administration’s official response has been a promise to develop “rules and processes” that will ensure decorum at the White House. Trump’s individual response was perhaps more threatening — that if reporters don’t listen to them, Trump and his team will “just leave.”

“And then you won’t be very happy,” Trump continued. “Because we do get good ratings.” 

There’s no First Amendment protection to good ratings, and the possibility of boring their viewership was definitely not one of the points addressed by CNN’s lawsuit. In fact, getting kicked out of the White House got Acosta more attention than he ever could have been hoping to get from his question about Trump’s word choice, had it gone uninterrupted. But while the Acosta issue was framed more around reporter conduct and the right of the press to report on the goings on of the White House, Trump’s seemingly-unrelated response highlights the real underlying tension between the president and his press. 

Trump is our first reality TV president, a fact of which he seems well aware. As much as he slams the “fake news” and insults the press at every turn, his constant press conferences and controversial commentary show how much he enjoys being in the spotlight — and despite their critical response, the news platforms that Trump disparages show slavish attention to his every word. 

It’s possible but unlikely that this latest confrontation between Trump and the press could lead to real change in their codependent relationship — if his administration really did “just leave” meetings with reporters and refuse to answer their questions (assuming Trump could even bear to abstain from media attention for that long) it would only create more drama, not “bad ratings.” If this cycle of provocation and attention-seeking is ever going to end, it won’t be on the terms Trump decreed. And considering the eagerness with which the press reported his dismissal of them, it won’t be on their terms either.