Jim Acosta's row with Trump was awkward and difficult. But that's what being America's watchdog looks like

Lucy Shanker

When five journalists were shot dead in their own newsroom, we thought the rhetoric would change. It was June 2018, and the Capital Gazette was added to the long list of workplaces marred by gun violence in the United States.

President Trump said the shooting “shocked the conscience of our nation.” But it wasn't shocking. The leader of the United States habitually demonises the media, referring to us as the “enemy of the people.” Even after the shooting, he hasn't stopped belittling the work of journalists — that which is essential to democracy.

It’s no secret that President Trump’s coining of the term “fake news” created a war on honest reporting, allowing him to challenge any assertion or indeed statistic that he doesn't like. And frankly, journalists are sick of it. Evidently, Jim Acosta is sick of it.

In an acrimonious exchange yesterday at the President’s post-midterms press conference, the tension between Acosta and Trump was tangible. Acosta asked the president about his demonising of immigrants by referring to the caravan of migrants as “an invasion”.

“They’re hundreds of miles away,” insisted Acosta.

Trump fired back with, “I think you should let me run the country; you run CNN. And if you did it well, your ratings would be much better.” Ding — that was round one. It escalated from there.

It's significant that Trump moved beyond a personal insult to attacking the whole of CNN, a newsroom still reeling from a pipe bomb sent to its New York office last week. “CNN should be ashamed of itself, having you working for them,” Trump continued.

Trump then closes with his signature point: “When you report fake news, which CNN does a lot, you are the enemy of the people.” It’s here that the President continues to widen the chasm he's worked hard to create between the media and its consumers. By refusing to engage in civil discourse with Acosta — and journalists as whole, really — Trump is engaging in a dangerous game. We’re far beyond him planting the seed of distrust in the media. The notion has grown roots.

In this context, what was most shocking about the midterms press conference was Acosta’s refusal to back down. Journalists have, after all, been bombarded with attacks for almost the entirety of Trump’s political career. Attacks about their disabilities. Attacks about their nationalities. Attacks about their gender. And truly, there haven’t been any reporters who publicly refused to put up with the rhetoric Trump spews daily. That all changed yesterday.

Trump’s framing of Jim Acosta as devoid of all moral character and journalistic integrity is frightening on a number of levels. What’s worse is that Acosta is now having his press pass to the White House revoked. As far as I'm concerned, that's a direct threat to all of our democratic rights.

Let me be frank: I study and report journalism all day, every day. I believe Acosta’s interaction with the President was absolutely necessary. It may not have been the most respectful. It was awkward and hard to watch. But it was also a power move. Acosta was doing his job.

From the first day we step into a journalism class, we are told, “You are the watchdog for the people.” We are told incessantly that our responsibility is to the people and to disseminate the truth because that’s what journalists do. Acosta was being America’s watchdog.

Above all, to be lectured on morality by a man who’s spent the last three years fighting off allegations of sexual misconduct, blatantly expressing xenophobic remarks, defending neo-Nazis and destroying confidence in the entire US media would be laughable if it weren't so infuriating. And I know journalists are supposed to be unbiased. Those are just facts — and not the alternative kind.

“You shouldn’t treat people that way,” Trump said to Acosta. “You shouldn't treat people that way.” Amen to that.