Under heavy fire from politicians, including President Donald Trump and his administration, some national political reporters are trying to defend their profession without becoming activists.

It’s a fine line.

From afar, I’ve watched with interest and curiosity as some national political reporters have become more expressive in defense of themselves, their media organization and their industry.

It has become increasingly trendy for politicians to slam journalists — figuratively, although Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs will tell you it happens literally, too. Although far from alone in this practice, President Trump and his administration regularly offer heavy criticism of journalists and media organizations.

Trump, of course, seems to have particularly charged feelings about CNN. He is fond, particularly on Twitter, of calling CNN “fake news.” And he raised something of a ruckus recently when he tweeted a video that showed him participating in a professional wrestling performance in which he slammed a person’s head into the wrestling ring. In the video, the person’s head was covered by a CNN logo.

As Trump and other politicians have turned up the heat on reporters, I have noticed more reporters responding in various ways.

I think that’s admirable to a certain degree. I’ve certainly used Twitter on occasion to dispute and sometimes refute accusations levied against other journalists or the media at large. 

However, I think such activity presents a certain degree of danger for journalists as well.

It boils down to this: Journalists report the story. Journalists are not the story — at least, not ideally. (Right, Ben Jacobs?) And if, as a reporter, you cross that line too often, you make yourself the story.

Political reporters such Chris Cilliza, formerly of The Washington Post and now at CNN, and NBC’s Chuck Todd regularly use Twitter to defend their networks and other media against attacks from politicians. Based on what I have seen, they have done a good job of defending their craft while not going so far as to come across as activists.

But I think that line has been crossed.

Jim Acosta, CNN’s chief political correspondent, has been at the forefront of Trump’s dispute with the cable news network. In Trump’s first news conference as president, he declined to call on Acosta for a question, calling CNN “fake news.” Acosta tried, to no avail, to press Trump into allowing him to ask a question.

That wasn’t so bad. It’s not at all uncommon for reporters to shout questions during news conferences. The Trump-CNN feud added a unique wrinkle to this instance, but it was not otherwise unusual.

But this past week, Acosta drew some attention when, on Twitter, he criticized Trump for, during a news conference, calling on a reporter who Acosta clearly thought was friendly to the White House. Trump also once again called CNN “fake news” during the news conference.

“Isn't it a ‘fake news conference’ to take a question from a reporter who is essentially an ally of the White House?” Acosta tweeted. He apparently was referring to the Daily Mail’s David Martosko, who recently was considered for a job in Trump’s communications department.

While CNN was attacked at the news conference, this example, to me, feels like a step too far. Rather than defending his organization, Acosta is creating a storyline by turning the “fake news” accusation back on Trump.

Similarly, I think it was a step too far when reporter Brian Karem recently went off on White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders during a news briefing.

During one of many instances in which Sanders was criticizing the media, Karem responded in full throat.

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“You’re inflaming everybody, right here, right now with those words,” Karem said.

It’s not that I disagree with what Karem said; whether or not I do is irrelevant. It’s that I don’t think it’s a journalist’s role during a news briefing to stand up and provide a lecture on or a defense of the media’s role in covering the White House.

Good journalism is worthy of defense. But as the old cliché goes, there is a time and place.

It is a fine line, indeed.

Former Iowa journalists in White House

Speaking of the White House press corps, it contains a couple of recent former Iowa reporters.

For those who may not already know: Catherine Lucey, who was The Associated Press’ state capitol and politics reporter in Des Moines for a couple of years, and Jennifer Jacobs, who was The Des Moines Register’s chief political reporter, both cover the White House now.

Lucey is still with The Associated Press. Jacobs reports on the White House for Bloomberg News.

They join a couple of Register alumni in the White House press corps: CNN’s Jeff Zeleny and John McCormick, who also reports for Bloomberg.

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Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. 


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