After the White House revoked the credentials of CNN reporter Jim Acosta, there was talk of a press corps boycott in response. But the idea was quickly abandoned as others explained how that would be playing into the hands of President Trump, who relishes a fight and who would use such an action as the ultimate proof that the press was against him.
Although a judge ruled Friday that the White House had to return the press pass, the tensions underlying the issue are far from resolved, because they extend far beyond official briefings. What we are having is a renewed debate that has been unsettled for as long as we have had a free press.
How does the press decide what the truth is? It boils down, as it has for centuries, to two competing models. The press can try to determine the facts and present them as such. Or they could publish contradictory statements and let the readers and listeners determine which is true.
But it is not that simple, as we witnessed in the 2016 presidential campaign. The press, and especially cable news, was content to let anybody say anything without context or contradiction for far too long. All that mattered were ratings, and the approach that brought the most viewers was the one that they followed.
Donald Trump, being the most regularly outrageous, got more time than any other candidate and not just on his favored Fox network. His marathon, unedited rallies and other appearances on CNN were criticized not only by Democrats and pundits but also by the other Republican campaigns.
Trump and CNN, and especially its president, Jeff Zucker, have gone from being friends and collaborators to symbiotic partners to feuding parties in clashes that will ultimately be resolved without really resolving anything.
The most outrageous thing that Trump did during the week he moved to ban Acosta is not likely to be part of any lawsuit. He singled out three African American women reporters for the kind of treatment that would get anybody else hauled into the human resources conference room for a reprimand and immediate remedial training.
He sneered at one, calling her questions “racist,” said another consistently asked “stupid” questions and described another as a “loser.”
All three are part of the White House press corps and are likely to be back for more abuse. As Trump knows very well, as he has said many times, there is nothing he can do that will erode his core of support, and those reporters who engage him directly in press conferences or elsewhere are helping him solidify that base.
It really does not matter if the press boycotts briefings or if the White House cancels all credentials; these clashes are no longer news, and there should no longer be even a pretense that they are.
Real reporting takes place off camera and away from official sources. Real news comes from documents and spreadsheets, from email and text messages, from whistle-blowers and databases.
Instead of fighting for more access, instead of lining up for more abuse, those reporters need to get out more and do more real reporting.