Jim Acosta on future as CNN’s chief White House correspondent: “I want to see the end of the movie”

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com. Jim Acosta at the Atlanta Press Club August 10, 2019.

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com. Jim Acosta at the Atlanta Press Club August 10, 2019.

Originally posted Wednesday, August 14, 2019 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

CNN's chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta has been covering the president since 2012. It's a draining job that involves oodles of travel and hardly a break even when he is in D.C. Many journalists do it for just four years given the high burn-out rate.

But Acosta, who covered the second four years of Barack Obama and is in his third year following Donald Trump, has no plans to move on just yet.

“I want to see the end of the movie,” Acosta told attendees of his Saturday brunch at the Buckhead Club for the Atlanta Press Club to promote his book “The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America.” “I want to see how this turns out. I do think no matter where you stand, we’re at a critical moment in our country’s history. It’s become acceptable for the president of the United States to call us the enemy of the people.”

[Disclosure: I have been an Atlanta Press Club board member since 2009.] 

Acosta’s plea is simple: “I am not your enemy. You are not my enemy. We’re all on the same team as Americans. That sounds corny. I wish we could put cynicism aside and contemplate the fact we are supposed to be one country. What I do I consider a public service. I know that’s old fashioned but that’s how I was raised.”

Indeed, that’s the whole point of his book: he is a journalist who got thrust into the limelight, in part, because he asks tough questions and the president doesn’t like it and made an example of him by pulling Acosta’s daily press pass to the White House last year. “I became his chief antagonist,” he said.

His crime? Not relinquishing his microphone when an intern tried to grab it from him while he was questioning Trump and supposedly "karate chopping" her. But the video press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders retweeted was a manipulated video. He did not such thing.

“This is ‘1984,’” Acosta said. “This is George Orwell come to life. This deep fake phenomenon has taken on and political operatives are fully capable and more than willing to manipulate video and audio.” (He did eventually get his press pass back.)

Acosta's history as a journalist is very typical. He started on the assignment desk of a TV station earning minimum wage. Former White House ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson's wife worked at the station and he remembered answering the phones. He would hear Sam's voice and pass him on to her because this was long before cell phones. He then did local news, moved to CBS News (where he spent a coupe of years in Atlanta), then CNN more than a decade ago.

By the time he covered Trump’s road to the presidency in 2015 and 2016, he began collecting notes for a possible book.

Once Trump made it to the White House, Acosta’s job became far crazier than he had ever anticipated. And the entire process of covering a president has changed. Daily briefings are a thing of the past. Trump instead likes to do scrums in front of his helicopter, obviating the need for his press secretary.

“We rely more and more on anonymous sources, sources we have to vet,” Acosta said. “It’s a very big collaborative process to get news on the air.”

Acosta said just because he covers Trump with a skeptical eye, it doesn’t make him a liberal shill. Rather, in his view, he’s just doing his job. And while many Republicans in office have fallen in line behind Trump publicly, many talk to Acosta privately to complain about the president.

“What I would say to the next generation of leaders is there has to be greater principles than just winning and being in power,” Acosta said. “I think there’s going to be a great period of reflection after Trump leaves the scene.”

And he worries that the Democratic Party is prone to just copy what Trump has done in an effort to fight fire with fire.

“That is just a recipe for disaster,” Acosta said. “We need to have more faith in one another. You have to have faith that the man in the red cap can be your friend again, that you can still be friends with the  person who wears pink resistance T-shirts.”

Unfortunately, he said Trump plays up the “divide and conquer” strategy in hopes of staying in power come 2020.

Acosta feels "viscerally angry" when Trump's advisor Kellyanne Conway asks a reporter about their ethnicity. It boggles his mind that the many in the administration feel perpetually aggrieved, like they are the victims, yet they are the ones in power.

And despite regular death threats against him, Acosta said he is not backing down from doing his job. It is surreal to him that he needs bodyguards to attend a Trump rally. At one point, he thought about carrying a taser gun. One time after leaving the White House, two Trump supporters followed him for two blocks yelling insults at him while videotaping it.

“We take the leap from death threats to what?” Acosta said. “Those are serious questions we have to grapple with.”