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The founding precept of the First Amendment is the idea that I may disagree with what you say, but defend to death your right to say it.
That being said, there are many who purport to be supporters of free speech who believe CNN’s Jim Acosta is a rude man who deserves to have his press credentials revoked. I’ve heard the same thing said about me, so naturally I’m predisposed to supporting Acosta’s right to speak in any way he wishes.
But do not misunderstand the issue. You do not have to defend Acosta to defend his actions. You may disagree with him. You may have conducted yourself in a different manner than Acosta did in a news conference in the East Room of the White House this week as he questioned President Donald Trump, but you cannot attack his right to do what he did without then calling into question your own actions.
We are a government of, by and for the people. The president is the president. Not the king. You absolutely have the right to be “rude” if you wish to use that term before the president. One man’s “rude” is another man’s righteous indignation. Who’s to say?
The White House has tried to avoid this very touchy subject by saying Jim refused to turn over a microphone to an intern and physically assaulted her. I was there. This is a lie. It did not happen. The intern in question was obviously new at her job (I had only seen her one time previously around the White House and these interns come and go so fast I barely have time to remember their names much less their faces). She was trying to satisfy the president’s whims and over reached in doing so.
Others have said Acosta broke well-established protocol. I’ve been covering presidents since Ronald Reagan. That claim is bilious bunk. As rude as Trump’s claims we are, the fact is we are far less intrusive than the press corps of the 1980s. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Helen Thomas bang on a press secretary’s office door and demand those inside come out and face the music.
Some of the press secretaries often brought Thomas coffee and donuts at 7 a.m. to start the day.
The president works for us. The press secretary works for us. You can call me rude – and many have – and you can call me whatever obscenity you wish to slap on me and I can assure you I have heard worse from people who love me.
Helen Thomas said it to me the best: “Do not get into this business if you want to make friends.”
I didn’t and I don’t. Neither do most of us in this field. We simply have a desire to question those in authority and report on what it is they do. In the past, that was appreciated if not always welcomed. But no one ever called us “the enemy of the people” or called us “Fake News.”
The president’s favorite dog whistle has been used in the last two years because the press, in its role as a watch dog, is the closest and best thing Trump can find as an enemy and we are holding him more accountable than the lapdog Senate and House. Going after us works with his base. Attacking us whips his folks into a frenzy.
Moreover, by going after Jim Acosta as the White House did, it deflects from other issues the president doesn’t necessarily want covered – like firing Jeff Sessions.
But it won’t work. Nor will calling Acosta “rude” work in the long run for the president. Trump has been far more than rude to anyone who disagrees with him and he’s still around. His instances of arrogance, insults and fear mongering are well documented and beyond pale. Yet, he still persists. He has continued to thrive and survive and so should Jim Acosta.
Further, there are numerous members of his press staff who are demeaning, belittling, arrogant and argumentative. I have never seen any member of the press be anything more than polite to them even as we are insulted and threatened.
The prevailing attitude among many reporters is we should keep our heads down and do our job. Some have questioned my actions and many more have question Acosta’s actions.
The truth is the rules have changed. The president wants to divide and conquer us and by getting us to take sides for or against the actions of an individual reporter he gets us to play directly into his long term goals.
I will not play that and I urge every other reporter no matter who they work for, to remember not everyone will do the job the way you do it. A country which supports free speech has to be ready to defend the speech of those who disagree with you and how you operate. No one is free to assault others or separate them merely because of how they question the president.
You do not have to agree with Acosta. You do not have to like CNN. You do not have to like any members of the press and you can believe anything you want about our motives and agenda.
But if you believe in Free Speech and the First Amendment, then you have to defend Jim’s right to say what he wants.
On Nov. 7, the president told me to sit down when I asked him about being divisive. He got combative when I assured him that no one would ever question the ability to get greater access to him. He told April Ryan to sit down. He called another reporter’s question “a racist” question. He told Peter Alexander he was no fan of his. He told Acosta he should be fired. He then yanked Acosta’s press credentials on a made up charge hours later.
As I’ve said since day one, the president is at war with the press. He was before he became president. He is today. It is because everyone in that press room with the proximity we have to the man want answers to the things he does. Since no one in the House and Senate that his party has controlled for the last two years will hold him accountable, we’re left holding the bag.
It is okay for the president to have his people put their best foot forward. It is okay even to spin the news to do so. It is not okay, not acceptable and not conducive to the proper application of democratic principles to go after those who are there asking questions – especially if those people disagree with you or hold you accountable.
There are those who continue to say the press should protest and show solidarity by walking out of the press room and show Trump “We mean business.” This is naïve and foolhardy. It would also never work.
As for me? You won’t get me out of there unless you do what they did to Acosta.
United We Stand. Divided We Fall. If you don’t stand for Acosta’s right to free speech, then do not be surprised when someone comes to take yours.