Now that CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta’s hard press pass has been restored to him through judicial fiat, at least for the time being, President Donald Trump and his administration need a solid plan for dealing with him.
I could make some observations from my three decades of management experience or my graduate degree in business administration, but upon consideration, I find that the most relevant know-how I can bring to bear in this situation comes from two years of teaching middle school and several more years raising toddlers.
Parents — good parents, anyway — know that it’s important that your kids understand that your yes means yes and your no means no. Teaching them that starts at an early age — as soon as they’re old enough to resist being put in a car seat, say — and ends at an indeterminate time, but probably later than you expect.
If your child asks for candy and you say no, but then say yes after they’ve whined three times, what did you teach them? To whine three times.
If your daughter wants to watch a movie you think is inappropriate for her and you say no, but then say yes after she’s thrown a tantrum, what did you teach her? To throw tantrums.
If your son wants the car keys … OK, you get the point.
But what did Trump do in the now-famous news conference that ended up with Acosta banned from the White House for a while? He said, multiple times, that he was finished talking to Acosta. And then after Acosta was obnoxious, Trump talked to Acosta some more. That pattern repeated itself several times.
That’s bad parenting.
Do you think Trump will call on Jim Acosta at his next news conference?
So what should the president and his staff do about Acosta now? Well, as any parenting coach will tell you, it’s never too late to start replacing bad parenting habits with good ones.
First, start every media event with a set time limit and let those in attendance know what that is, whether it’s three minutes before the president boards Air Force One or two hours in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House.
During such events, call on Acosta from time to time, answer one question from him, and then refuse to interact with him any further. If he goes into his middle-school attention-grabbing act, make one statement: “I’ll return to the podium when the microphone has been passed to another journalist.” Then take two steps away from the podium and stay there until Acosta gives up the mic.
Even a scene stealer like Jim Acosta will get the point eventually. And if he’s slow to do so, his fellow reporters — who will learn quickly that their time to ask questions is limited and that Acosta is wasting it — will become allies of the administration, encouraging Acosta to sit down and let someone ask a question that might actually get an answer.
Absolute discipline in these few details will train the White House press corps quickly. Most of them won’t even recognize what’s happening.
But having said all that, I have one more piece of training that offers a lens through which to assess Trump’s situation vis-à-vis Acosta and CNN: my time as a psychological operations specialist in the U.S. Army. That background tells me that, no matter what advice Trump may receive about how to deal with Acosta, he’s not going to take it.
And he’s probably making the right call.
Here’s what I mean: I have a friend who compares Trump to Superman — he’s relatively boring unless he has someone to punch. Sure, it’s cool to see him fly around with a building on his shoulders or whatever, but after he’s saved a few hundred people, it’s time to bring on General Zod.
I prefer a Hulk comparison, myself — Bruce Banner’s a nice guy and all, but no one’s paying the price of admission to watch him solve complex gamma-ray calculations on a supercomputer. We want someone to poke him with sharp objects to bring the big, green guy out.
It would be giving Jim Acosta too much credit to label him a super-villain, but he’s certainly capable of prodding the president with a pointy stick until he Hulks out.
And Hulking out is what Trump’s base sent him to Washington to do. Keeping a guy in the press corps who can’t help but try to make himself the star of the show by acting like a poorly trained middle schooler is sound strategy for the president. Trump’s base can’t get enough of their team putting Acosta in his place, over and over and over again.
There’s a reason you’ve never seen a movie titled “Clark Kent, Intrepid Reporter.” Or “Bruce Banner, Troubled Genius.” Or “Tony Stark, Super Rich Guy.” Or “Peter Parker, Boy Photographer.” Secret identities don’t sell tickets.
There’s also a reason Hollywood keeps making sequels. Americans never seem to tire of watching their heroes pummel the bad guys.
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