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Pass the Mic: Former White House Reporter Chats with Next Generation of Reporters

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Jim Acosta (photo by Antoine Sanfuentes)

CNN’s Jim Acosta, the former White House correspondent whom President Donald Trump called “the enemy of the people” during a testy exchange at a 2018 press conference, told aspiring reporters at the School of Communication that journalists aren’t in the business of making friends.

“Our job is to get the truth out there in a fair and accurate and balanced way. I always tell people, ‘If you want to be liked, go be a veterinarian or something,’” he chuckled.

Acosta chatted on Saturday, February 10, with students in the one-credit SOC course, Covering the White House in an Election Year: Down to the Wire. The class—which offers an insider’s view of the relationship between the administration and the media—is taught by Antoine Sanfuentes, CAS/BA ’90, CNN vice president and managing editor for the network’s White House and Capitol Hill coverage. Sanfuentes, a distinguished guest lecturer in SOC since 2022, covered the Obama and Trump administrations with Acosta.

After his exchange with Trump, during which the president called him a “rude, terrible person” and accused him of reporting “fake news,” Acosta’s press pass was revoked by the White House. CNN went to court and the administration, weighing the prospect of a federal lawsuit, relented. Even so, Acosta received death threats and threatening text messages from those who sided with Trump.

“He enjoys the spectacle just as much as his supporters do and he likes to whip them up into a frenzy,” Acosta said. 

“[People ask] ‘Aren’t you playing into his hand? Should you be asking these hard questions? It’s just going to rile up his base,’” Acosta continued. “It becomes a question of what [to] do in that situation: back down and take the abuse and let him yell and say things about you, or hold your ground and say, ‘No, Mr. President, I have a question for you. You can yell, you can interrupt, you can call me names, you can take my microphone away. I’m still going to try and ask this question.’ I thought in that moment—and going forward—that was the best approach.”

Acosta, who anchors CNN’s 10 a.m. weekday broadcast, chronicled his experience covering the first two years of Trump’s presidency in his 2019 book, The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America. Students read the book for the course, which informed many of their questions for Acosta, among them: What does Trump’s 2024 campaign—and the prospect of a second presidency for the Republican frontrunner—mean for the press? And what does it portend for Americans’ faith in the Fourth Estate?

“My sense is that we’re going to have to be a bit more surgical in how we cover [rallies, campaign events, and speeches]. Maybe we don’t need to cover these things live all the time, maybe we can show the tape of what [Trump] says afterwards and dissect it and have a fact checker come in,” Acosta said.

“And if Joe Biden goes out there and messes things up, we should talk about that too. If he confuses the presidents of Egypt and Mexico,” as he did on February 9, during his remarks on the special counsel report concerning his handling of classified documents, “we gotta point that out. We just have to continue to try to do the news and hold folks accountable and let the chips fall where they may.”