THE MERIT OF ASKING AGGRESSIVE QUESTIONS

CNN’S Jim Acosta confronts President Donald Trump. (Image by CNN)

Following the news that the Trump administration revoked Jim Acosta’s White House press pass, some journalists have criticized the CNN correspondent for his argumentative questioning of the president during a news conference earlier this month. But, as one of the most iconic moments in Canadian news media history demonstrates, such questioning can also be as revealing as it is controversial. And it may now be more important than ever.

Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride – who are faculty members with the Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism school – have been among Acosta’s most high-profile journalistic critics. In a commentary that described the CNN correspondent’s actions as not representing “the best of journalism,” McBride and Tompkins scolded him for making statements rather than asking questions during that news conference.1Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride, “CNN’s Jim Acosta’s Actions to Trump Don’t Represent the Best of Journalism,” Poynter News, November 8, 2018, https://www.poynter.org/news/cnns-jim-acostas-actions-trump-dont-represent-best-journalism.

The two specific statements they cited were “Your campaign had an ad showing migrants climbing over walls” and “They are hundreds of miles away, that’s not an invasion.”2Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride, “CNN’s Jim Acosta’s Actions to Trump Don’t Represent the Best of Journalism,” Poynter News, November 8, 2018, https://www.poynter.org/news/cnns-jim-acostas-actions-trump-dont-represent-best-journalism. McBride and Tompkins then concluded their commentary by advising journalists to “ask tough question, avoid making statements or arguing during a press event and report the news, don’t become the news.”3Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride, “CNN’s Jim Acosta’s Actions to Trump Don’t Represent the Best of Journalism,” Poynter News, November 8, 2018, https://www.poynter.org/news/cnns-jim-acostas-actions-trump-dont-represent-best-journalism.

Leaving aside the fact that Trump’s own interruptions may have stopped Acosta from turning those statements into questions, McBride and Tompkins’ criticism is reminiscent of what happened when Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reporter Tim Ralfe took a similar approach with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau during the country’s October Crisis of 1970.

That crisis began when members of the Front de Libération du Québec independence movement kidnapped British trade commissioner James Cross and Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte, the later of whom was eventually murdered. The federal government called in troops to protect federal officials and diplomats in Ottawa. And it was against this backdrop that Ralfe, along with CTV reporter Peter Reilly, confronted Trudeau.

According to the Vancouver Sun, Trudeau’s interview with the two reporters happened “after he had ducked out a side exit of the (House of) Commons to avoid the great crush of newsmen” gathered there.4Wayne MacDonald, “PM Vows No Limit in Terror Fight: ‘Week-Kneed Bleeding Hearts’ Flayed,” Sun (Vancouver), October 14, 1970.

Ralfe began with a somewhat haphazard question: “Sir, what is it with all these men with guns around here?” But his interview also included statements such as “I’m worried about living in a town that’s full of people with guns running around in it” and argumentative questions such as “Doesn’t it worry you having a town that you’ve got to have to resort to this kind of thing?”

He even told Trudeau he wanted to “live in a society that is free and democratic, which means that you don’t have people running around with guns in it. And one of the things I have to give up for that choice is the fact people like you may be kidnapped” – with a seeming emphasis on the word you.

Then, after all of Ralfe’s poking and prodding about whether he was turning Canada into a police state with his response to the FLQ, Trudeau finally said this: “Yeah, well, there’s a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed, but it’s more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of…”

An apparently indignant Ralfe interrupted and asked, “At any cost? At any cost? How far would you go into that? How far would you extend that?” To which Trudeau replied, “Well, just watch me.”

Ottawa Citizen television columnist Frank Penn reported “the bulk of this lively and illuminating interview apparently wound up on the CBC newsroom floor.”5Frank Penn, “CBC Blows Big One,” Ottawa Citizen, October 15, 1970. But newspapers across the country picked up those pieces and put them on their front pages underneath headlines such as “Weak-Kneed Bleeding Hearts Hit”6Arthur Blakely, “‘Weak-Kneed Bleeding Hearts’ Hit: An Angry Trudeau is Interviewed,” Gazette (Montreal), October 14, 1970 and “PM Vows No Limit in Terrorist Fight.”7Wayne MacDonald, “PM Vows No Limit in Terror Fight: ‘Week-Kneed Bleeding Hearts’ Flayed,” Sun (Vancouver), October 14, 1970. Many even published a full transcript of the confrontation. CTV also aired the interview in its entirety.8Scott Macrae, “Eight Lost Minutes: Why?” Vancouver Sun, March 19, 1976.

Later, Ralfe, who died of heart attack in 2000, would reveal his CBC superiors thought he had been rude to Trudeau and that he was worried he would be fired. “We know you’re under pressure and you’re tired, but you shouldn’t have treated the prime minister that way,” he recalled his bosses saying.9Scott Macrae, “Eight Lost Minutes: Why?” Vancouver Sun, March 19, 1976. In fact, Peter Trueman, who was the executive producer for CBC’s National News in October 1970, admitted, “My first reaction was to fire off a telex to Ottawa giving Ralfe shit for disputing the PM,” something Trueman later regretted.10Scott Macrae, “Eight Lost Minutes: Why?” Vancouver Sun, March 19, 1976.

However, Ralfe’s supposed rudeness, as well as his argumentative questioning and statements, forced the prime minister to reveal himself in a way that more restrained questioning hadn’t. As a result, Trudeau’s just-watch-me-phrase has come to symbolize, in the words of the Canadian Press, the prime minister’s “transition from flower-power leader to Machiavellian overlord,”11The Canadian Press, “Just Watch Me,” Daily News (Nanaimo), September 30, 2000. with a YouTube clip of the exchange having been viewed more than 400,000 times.

It’s far too early to tell whether Acosta’s confrontation with Trump will be remembered the same way. However, the president’s response to the CNN correspondent has been similarly revealing. Not only did the Trump administration revoke Acosta’s press credentials (which a court ruling as temporarily restored),12Michael M. Grynbaum and Emily Baumgaertner, “CNN’s Jim Acosta Returns to the White House After Judge’s Ruling,” New York Times, November 16, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/16/business/media/cnn-acosta-trump.html. but White House press secretary Sarah Sanders shared a video that appears to have been doctored so Acosta appears to behave aggressively toward an intern who attempted to take a microphone away from him.13The Associated Press, “Expert: Acosta Video Distributed by White House Was Doctored,” New York Times, November 18, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2018/11/08/arts/ap-us-trump-media.html.

Such revelations are important because many elected and unelected officials seem increasingly willing to refuse to answer reporters’ questions or lie when answering them. And if Acosta’s actions end up revealing a truth to the public that would not have otherwise been revealed, just like Ralfe he will have done his ultimate job as a journalist – even if some think he should have been less argumentative.

References   [ + ]

1, 2, 3. Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride, “CNN’s Jim Acosta’s Actions to Trump Don’t Represent the Best of Journalism,” Poynter News, November 8, 2018, https://www.poynter.org/news/cnns-jim-acostas-actions-trump-dont-represent-best-journalism.
4, 7. Wayne MacDonald, “PM Vows No Limit in Terror Fight: ‘Week-Kneed Bleeding Hearts’ Flayed,” Sun (Vancouver), October 14, 1970.
5. Frank Penn, “CBC Blows Big One,” Ottawa Citizen, October 15, 1970.
6. Arthur Blakely, “‘Weak-Kneed Bleeding Hearts’ Hit: An Angry Trudeau is Interviewed,” Gazette (Montreal), October 14, 1970
8, 9, 10. Scott Macrae, “Eight Lost Minutes: Why?” Vancouver Sun, March 19, 1976.
11. The Canadian Press, “Just Watch Me,” Daily News (Nanaimo), September 30, 2000.
12. Michael M. Grynbaum and Emily Baumgaertner, “CNN’s Jim Acosta Returns to the White House After Judge’s Ruling,” New York Times, November 16, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/16/business/media/cnn-acosta-trump.html.
13. The Associated Press, “Expert: Acosta Video Distributed by White House Was Doctored,” New York Times, November 18, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2018/11/08/arts/ap-us-trump-media.html.

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