News watchers around the country are probably familiar with CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta. They know him as driven, determined and, some argue, over-the-top when it comes to trying to get the president to answer questions. And over the last two years, with the Trump administration escalating its anti-press rhetoric, Acosta has often been the target of its attacks. Along the way, he’s become a part of the story, earning both kudos and criticism for his brash style.
His newly-released book, “The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America,” kept with that signature style. Acosta (@Acosta) talks to host Robin Young about covering the president and the future of the free press.
By Jim Acosta
“This is CNN breaking news. . . .”
I was sitting on a plane just minutes after takeoff when the news alert flashed across the cabin’s TV screens. It was the morning of October 25, 2018, and I was en route from Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport to San Francisco, where I would be delivering a speech at San Jose State University on the state of the news business under President Donald J. Trump and accepting an award from the school’s journalism program. I’d been planning on using the flight to work on my speech, but suddenly I was glued to the screen in front of me.
The New York City Police Department had units surrounding the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, across from Central Park. CNN’s headquarters was being evacuated after a suspicious package had been discovered in the building’s mailroom. A pipe bomb had been sent to CNN in New York, but its intended target was former CIA director John Brennan, a frequent Trump critic. The device was similar to bombs that had been mailed to Trump’s leading Democratic Party adversaries, including former president Barack Obama and Trump’s rival in the 2016 election, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
It has all been building up to some kind of act of violence, I thought. I had feared the day would come when the president’s rhetoric would lead one of his supporters to harm or even murder a journalist. And when it happened, the United States would undergo something of a sea change, joining the list of countries around the world where journalists were no longer safe reporting the truth. Perhaps we have already entered that era, a dangerous time to tell the truth in America. Of course, there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it from where I was, strapped to my seat at the beginning of a five-hour flight to Northern California. All I could do was watch as the images of domes- tic terrorism played out on my tiny in-flight TV.
Yes, for a reporter, there are few things worse than missing a big story like this one. But “fear of missing out” was not the emotion I was feeling at that moment. I was pissed off. Really, really pissed off. This was a terrorist attack on my news organization and, without a doubt, on the American free press.
Since the days before the Iowa caucuses in 2016, I had covered both Trump’s unimaginable rise to power and his tumultuous presidency. My photographers, producers, and I had covered the rallies where Trump demonized the press, where he called us “disgusting” and “dishonest,” before moving on, at a news conference he held before being sworn into office, to dub my network and me “fake news.” We had listened to the chants of “CNN sucks” from his crowds of supporters, seen them give us the middle finger, and heard them call us “traitors” and “scum.” And of course, who could forget when the president of the United States said we were “the enemy of the people”?
On the way to California, I ripped up my original speech for the folks at San Jose State and started from scratch. The students, I had decided, would get the unvarnished truth about what I had been witnessing during my time covering Trump. I was afraid the president, I later told the crowd, was putting our lives in danger. But this was no time to back down. The truth, I argued, was bigger than a president who is acting like a bully. We were in a fight for the truth, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Excerpted from “The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America” by Jim Acosta. Copyright © 2019 by Jim Acosta. Republished with permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.