Since the first press conference Donald Trump gave as president-elect, no one has embodied CNN’s relationship with his administration more than Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta. Trump singled out the journalist in a bizarro exchange in the belly of Trump Tower in January 2017: “You are fake news,” he said memorably. It set the stage for an ongoing drama in which Acosta has starred in some of the White House press corps’ most memorable public exchanges with Trump aides over truth.
So it was no surprise—as Acosta beamed into CNN before a Trump rally in South Carolina on Monday night—that a supporter behind him hoisted a “CNN SUCKS” poster into the frame just above his shoulder, where viewers at home could see it. “Go home Jim!” the crowd began chanting as the reporter continued his live hit. It’s the sort of vitriol Trump and his fans direct primarily—though not exclusively—to the self-styled Most Trusted Name in News.
What happened next, however, was much weirder. As BuzzFeed’s Henry J. Gomez reported (emphasis mine):
These were tense moments. But before long, Acosta made his way to the metal barricade separating the media from the angry horde assembled at the latest Donald Trump rally. He posed for selfies, first with a kind woman who genuinely seemed to want one, and then with others who appeared more eager to share the moments ironically on social media.
Then something even stranger happened: Acosta began signing autographs. A slip of paper here, a campaign sign there. Even the bill of one “Make America Great Again” hat. Eventually one of his most persistent hecklers — a young man with a long, scruffy beard, wearing a MAGA cap backwards and a MAGA flag as a cape — engaged Acosta in a friendly conversation. By the end of the exchange, the Trump fan was begging Acosta for an on-air shoutout.
Maybe this was a harmless extension of an olive branch as the debate over “civility” raged on Washington. “I think it helps calm them down,” Acosta told BuzzFeed. “If I were to say no, it could make it more venomous.” Besides, CNN journalists have no personal beef with Trump supporters.
The other view is that this episode was a manifestation of CNN as a corporate media behemoth. The near-daily heavyweight bout in the White House briefing room is undeniably good for the starpower of the network’s talent—Acosta was literally signing MAGA hats. Never mind that the people who were initially shouting him down on live TV are also those who enable the sort of pathological lying from the White House that CNN theatrically rails against.
It’s also another reminder that more than one fighter here may be putting on an act. Trump and his supporters’ performative hatred of CNN and the “fake news media” has become just as much a fixture in our political culture as Acosta & Co.’s indignant response. Like professional wrestling, it all seems loosely scripted at this point, with high production values dressing up predetermined outcomes. As a bonus: Everyone gets a selfie when the show ends.