When Politico contributor Ben Strauss started reporting a profile of CNN White House reporter Jim Acosta, I proffered the notion to him that both CNN and the White House likely loved the at times theatrical Acosta-White House frictions.
His final effort, "Jim Acosta Is the White House's Favorite Reporter," leaves no doubt, especially with a telling, if brief, comment to Strauss from Steve Bannon not long before he was shown the exit.
Center stage in the piece — and we are talking about a stage on many levels — is a take on Acosta's much-televised tussle in the briefing room with Stephen Miller, a top President Trump aide, over immigration.
You may remember the Aug. 2 face-off when Miller detailed policy, and Acosta recounted his father's immigration to the U.S. from Cuba and quoted the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty — only to be lambasted by Miller's retort about Acosta's "ahistorical" mistake about the history of the poem and statue.
Strauss asked Bannon whether Acosta was playing into the administration's hands. It prompted a one-word text: “Yes!!!!!!!”
And, as he also found, CNN "was overjoyed" after the Miller exchange, as one public relations official told him sarcastically. But there is little doubt that there were mutual benefits to such combat.
Strauss is a contributing editor to Politico's magazine and co-author with Joe Nocera of a very good book on the NCAA, "Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA." As he delved into Acosta, 46, it became clear that "disdain delivered with a theatrical flourish has become something of a signature in the nine months of the Trump administration."
The exchange with Miller, which got rather personal (“one of the most outrageous, insulting, ignorant and foolish things you have ever said,” Miller said at one point) was good television, if not debate over public policy. And, Strauss writes, it "cemented Acosta’s undisputed role as the chief antagonist for a network that styles itself as Trump’s chief antagonist, a sparring partner for the administration in the unscripted reality TV show that is the daily briefing."
Personally, I might just take issue with the notion explicit in the piece that the White House briefing has evolved into a largely "unscripted" reality show. Combatants on both sides often have their lines very much prepared, even committed to memory.
Still, results are clear. CNN's audience goes up, while Trump's base is confirmed in their preternatural suspicions about the press.
"Fans leave bourbon in Acosta’s mailbox and stop him on the street to thank him for standing up to Trump’s policies and press-bashing; his critics, some of them within his own newsroom, worry he has strayed into naked partisanship in pursuit of ratings and allowed himself to be cast as the perfect foil for an administration that has pegged the mainstream media as an enemy."
For his employer, "Acosta is standing up to a bully — both for a network that has been under attack by Trump and those who feel disenfranchised in the president’s America. But there is also a view inside the network’s newsroom that Acosta has been given the latitude, perhaps even the implicit assignment, to turn the briefing room into a personal editorial page because it is good television and reaffirms CNN’s integral role in the ongoing drama."
But, as Strauss also notes, in making the back-and-forth with the acidic and at times haughty Miller personal, "Acosta also committed the cardinal sin of traditional journalism: He had become part of the story."
It's not a new development at the White House, with others winning both plaudits and derision for a similar modus operandi; Dan Rather of CBS and Sam Donaldson of ABC remain near the top of the list. And each gained even greater celebrity than what naturally comes to TV folks plying their trade there.
And, in an era where employers tend to love the notion of their journalists becoming "brands," there's no reason to believe that the mutual penchant for the pugnaciousness will lessen.