CMI 2020 Annual Report

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Speaker Series

CNN’s Acosta knows what

you say about him

By Andrew Conte

Photo by Jason Cohn

CNN Senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta talks with patrons before the Speaker

Series event.

Jim Acosta, CNN’s chief White House

correspondent, knows the terrible things

people say about him on social media.

No one person could keep track of all

the comments, and Acosta turned off his

Twitter alerts several years ago — partly

because of the volume of messages, but

also because President Donald Trump’s

supporters started harassing him and

making death threats.

Cesar Sayoc, the man who pleaded guilty

to sending pipe bombs to CNN and top

Democrats, also posted nearly a dozen

messages about Acosta, including one

showing a decapitated goat.

This, in the Trump era, comes with the

job of asking challenging questions of the

president.

“One of the things that has been an

education for me is the wild west of social

media,” Acosta told me recently by phone

from Washington. “It’s a new frontier for

I invited Acosta to speak at the Pittsburgh

Playhouse on Feb. 6 as part of the Media

Innovators Speaker Series, but not because

of his politics or mine. Instead, it was his

journalistic approach of asking

challenging questions — in his words, of

being an “equal opportunity pain in the

butt” — to anyone in power. We ended up

selling out the PNC Theater.

Is he tough on Trump? Yes, that’s who runs

the White House. But before that,

Acosta asked difficult questions of

President Barack Obama and Cuba’s

President Raúl Castro, and many others.

Also, unlike many of his inside-the-Beltway

contemporaries, Acosta cut his teeth

in local television, working at stations in

Knoxville, Dallas and Chicago before going

back to his hometown of Washington, D.C.

Having worked in both Washington and

in local news, I know that you have to

keep your elbows out when dealing with

small-town officials as much as you do with

Congressional lawmakers and White House

I hoped that Pittsburghers would get to see

a human side of Acosta by meeting him in

person, and hearing about how he came up

through the business and why he feels so

strongly about journalistic traditions and

responsibilities.

I did not, however, expect so many

Pittsburghers to react negatively to Acosta’s

appearance. The Pittsburgh Playhouse’s

Facebook page, where we promoted the

event, carries nearly 200 comments from

people saying mostly disparaging things

about Acosta and his work:

One Pittsburgh man who says he works for a

candy company and looks like a tuxedo-wearing

gentleman had this to say: “Jim Acosta is a

self-serving narcissist … He acts out to gain

self-indulgent atte tion while trying to push his

left -leaning agenda.”

A Greensburg woman who raised money on her

birthday to help kids with cancer said: “ [Acosta]

is a self-serving idiot that cares nothing about

reporting the truth. Fair journalism is a thing of

the past!”

My point is that these all seem like decent,

hard-working people based on their other

posts about their families and their pets.

They’re all people we recognize and know.

They are our neighbors and friends.

Photo by Jason Cohn

CNN’s Jim Acosta shares his stories of working

as a White House correspondent with a

near-capacity crowd inside the PNC Theatre

Speaker Series

But when it comes to Acosta and CNN and

asking honest questions of the president,

these people think nothing of going on

social media to say mean-spirited things.

Acosta, of course, takes in a broader scope

for this behavior because he encounters

it all across America. He has bodyguards

who travel with him to campaign rallies

because of the hecklers and because of the

potential for others like Sayoc, who might

try to do actual harm to him.

Acosta’s New York Times bestselling book,

“The Enemy of the People,” takes its title

from the president’s words, who has called

out journalists and news stations as if he’s

a Third World despot or a small-town

mayor who cannot handle legitimate

scrutiny from the Fourth Estate.

“It’s a deeply destructive force in our

politics right now … ,” Acosta told me.

“[Trump] has done this; he has put a bull’s

eye on the backs of reporters. And I think

what has happened is that some, not all,

of Trump’s supporters have absorbed

this rhetoric and directed it back at us in

ways that make us feel endangered and

threatened.”

Reporters who question this administration

and hold power accountable get labeled as

troublemakers.

We saw it again recently when Secretary

of State Mike Pompeo berated an NPR

journalist for asking about Ukraine and

why he had not done more to protect

the United States’ ambassador there.

That’s a legitimate question, but Pompeo

responded with a tirade and by blocking

another NPR correspondent from the State

Department’s next overseas trip. Trump

applauded him.

Politicians rarely like it when we ask

questions that challenge their authority.

I certainly have had plenty of elected

officials — governors, lawmakers, mayors,

council members — criticize me for asking

difficult questions. Sometimes they lashed

out, and other times they simply refused to

answer.

More than once, that frustration turned

personal.

A government employee joked about

running me over with his car after I worked

on an investigative project about how his

Photo by Jason Cohn

Acosta greets state Sen. Jay Costa (right) as President Paul Hennigan looks on.

office had been managing taxpayer money.

Mayor Tom Murphy used me as a foil in a

Hill District speech about how suburbanites

come into the city to work when he wanted

to win approval for a commuter tax.

It happens. At the local level, politicians

play to a smaller audience.

On a national stage, the president uses

aggressively harsh words to call out

journalists on television, on social media

and at his rallies. He does this with little

apparent regard for their safety. And his

supporters run to the scent.

“My concern is that you can have a situation

that is so volatile where you have a

reporter who is seriously hurt or killed,”

Acosta said. “We can’t have a situation like

that in this country. At the moment that

that happens, we cease being the United

State of America that you and I grew up in.

You can’t have journalists getting hurt and

beat up and that sort of thing because one

particular politician’s supporters don’t like

the coverage.”

Here in Pittsburgh, where we sit at a

continental divide between Trump’s

supporters and detractors, we risk more

than media coverage too. We all live together,

cheering on the Steelers, shopping at

Giant Eagle, making annual pilgrimages to

Kennywood.

Every four years, the presidential election

sweeps through our communities, sowing

division as candidates look for those few

swing votes that will tip the state in their

favor, with its 20 electoral college votes.

We’re only now recovering from the 2016

race. Most of us have learned how to get

through a family gathering without falling

into a bespittled rage, or how to see our neighbors

as more than the campaign signs they

put in their front yard.

But it’s hard. The way people are reacting to

Acosta’s appearance reminds us of that. The

coming months will be ugly and

divisive. We will want to tear apart at the

seams, along the neighborhood lines where

the campaign signs change over.

On his Twitter page, Acosta has pinned a

message for those who question the media:

“We are not the enemy of the people. I am

not your enemy. You are not my enemy. It

is wrong to call your fellow Americans the

enemy. We are all on the same team. We are

all Americans.”

As we lean into the 2020 presidential election

cycle, I hope we can remember too the values

— decency, hard work, friendliness — that we

like to think bind us together across southwestern

Pennsylvania. It won’t be easy, but

we’re better than our base instincts.

When Acosta comes to Pittsburgh, come out

to hear him speak and to get to know him better

as a person, rather than as someone you

see only on television. No one will ask you to

give up your ideology or political beliefs; you

just have to be open to seeing him, like all of

us, as fellow Americans.

This article has been adapted from a

column that originally appeared on

NEXTpittsburgh.

harassing and bullying journalists.”

42 executives.

at Pittsburgh Playhouse.

43

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