On Jim Acosta, the intern, and inappropriate internship expectations: A professor’s perspective

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A screenshot of CNN’s footage from the November 7, 2018 press conference.

As a Media and Communication professor who regularly supervises undergraduate interns, I have been thinking about the discourse surrounding Jim Acosta and the intern who attempted to remove the microphone from his hands, including the White House’s suggestion that Acosta assaulted her and therefore deserved to have his White House “hard pass” press credential revoked. I have a few thoughts to share.

First, journalists like Jim Acosta are well-trained and have decades of experience regarding professional conduct in their field. Journalists ask difficult questions and sometimes badger the people they are interviewing. They don’t do so for the sake of being difficult; they do so because securing answers to tough questions is crucial, and can require a bit of a fight, especially when journalists are reporting on contentious and important issues.

Second, Trump has called the media “the true enemy of the people” and has engaged extensively in anti-media rhetoric. This is a problem for our democracy because the media are an integral part of it, as indicated by the first amendment’s guarantee of the freedom of the press. The media serve a watchdog function in our democracy, trying to discern the truth about issues of local, national, and international importance, then reporting to help the people make informed decisions as constituents and voters.
These two points serve as important context for my understanding of what happened and why Acosta’s White House press access has been revoked. Specifically:

I am troubled that an intern was expected to physically remove a microphone from a reporter’s hand because this situation was neither unique nor unpredictable. Every single day, journalists doggedly persist in asking questions that government officials would rather not answer. As an easily anticipated situation, the White House staff could have managed Acosta’s resistance in other, more professional ways. For example, they could have cut the sound to the microphone Acosta was holding, and had the intern hand a different microphone to the next journalist who wished to ask a question. Meanwhile, a security guard (not an intern) could have taken the microphone from the reporter.

If the intern who interacted with Acosta were one of the interns that I supervise, as her professor, I would be concerned about her work environment and her site supervisors’ expectations of her. I would ask to have a conversation with her supervisors to help manage their expectations, helping to ensure that she is not put in risky situations or subjected to abuses of power by those with an anti-free-press agenda.

My advice to the public, then, is this: Don’t accept the White House’s narrative about Acosta assaulting an intern, making their revocation of his hard pass justified. This narrative is dishonest, and it functions to buttress Trump’s problematic characterization of the press as “the true enemy of the people.”

Yes, the interaction we witnessed was inappropriate — but it wasn’t assault, and it wasn’t Jim Acosta’s fault (he was doing his job), and it’s not the intern’s fault, either (she was doing the job asked of her). It was the fault of whomever created that work environment and trained an intern to engage with journalists in such a combative, inappropriate, and unprofessional manner.

Unedited video footage of the interaction is available for review at https://twitter.com/CNNPR/status/1060351885998256128?s=20 .

Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media and communication professor at Salem State University and the author of  The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters, and many other works

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One Comment on “On Jim Acosta, the intern, and inappropriate internship expectations: A professor’s perspective

  1. Well said. And the White House response was particularly a problem when they used doctored video–just as photographs are no longer ironclad evidence in the age of PhotoShop, we have the reality that any digital information–audio or video–can also be changed. This case was particularly odd because the event happened on live TV, so the fake claim with doctored video the next day shows an ongoing disdain for facts.

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