NEW YORK (AP) — CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta, whose network is a frequent target of President Donald Trump’s “fake news” barbs, called on him Monday to stop attacking the media because he’s afraid someone will get hurt.
The past week may have signaled a turning point in journalists fighting back against Trump’s attacks, with the White House Correspondents Association issuing a statement condemning him for praising a Montana congressman who body-slammed a reporter last year during a successful congressional campaign.
Acosta, Maggie Haberman and WHCA President Olivier Knox talked about the personal toll the words have taken during a panel Monday at CNN’s “Citizen” conference. Knox said the day after Trump referred to some news organizations as enemies of the people, his child came to him in tears and asked if he was going to prison.
The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Trump has been advised that his words against the media have an impact, but “he doesn’t seem to care,” said Haberman, who covered Trump as a New York real estate baron and now in the White House. A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, also said that he was glad Trump broke an agreement to keep a conversation the two men had off the record because it revealed publicly that he had made the same point to the president.
“All he hears is the cheering of the crowd when he gets up and says it,” Haberman said.
Acosta wonders how serious Trump actually is in his criticism, and the extent to which “fake news” is just another line delivered by a man who made “you’re fired” a signature when he hosted “The Apprentice.”
What’s disturbing is the number of people at campaign rallies willing to join in — and add some choice epithets his way, Acosta said. It has normalized and sanitized a level of nastiness and cruelty that he hasn’t seen before.
The rhetoric “has to stop,” he said. “I’m afraid somebody is going to get hurt.”
Haberman warned not to overstate the issue; while disturbing, it doesn’t compare to the danger she felt after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. There’s no great answer other than for reporters to continue doing their jobs, she said. Haberman said she was taken aback when some fellow reporters were surprised that she continued wearing her press credentials while speaking to some attendees at a recent Trump rally in the South.
“People said they stopped wearing them,” she said.
It’s often difficult for news organizations used to competing with one another to agree on a strategy for fighting back against the attacks. That’s why it was notable when Knox on Friday issued a WHCA statement condemning Trump for praising Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte. Trump said anyone who can do a body-slam “is my kind of guy.” The correspondents association said it amounted to a celebration of a crime by someone sworn to uphold the nation’s laws.
“It seemed like the right thing to do,” Knox said.
“It was absolutely the right thing to do,” said CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer. “We applaud you.”
Haberman said she’s happy with Trump’s recent willingness to engage reporters more directly. She noted that Trump has skillfully kept control; instead of formal news conferences where reporters can think about questions in advance, he favors brief availabilities before stepping onto a helicopter — where television viewers can’t even hear the questions.
Acosta said it’s preferable to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders’ briefings.
“I wouldn’t put ‘productive’ and a Sarah Sanders briefing in the same sentence,” he said.
The reporters also talked about the challenge of covering a president when so much time is spent on fact-checking false presidential statements and they got some advice from veteran Watergate sleuth Carl Bernstein. He said reporters must get at the stories behind the statements.
“We have to be more than Trump lie-catchers,” Bernstein said.