Arts and Culture

Truth teller


by James Heffernan

 

SUMMARY: CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta ('93) covers the Obama administration, presidential press conferences, visits by heads of state and issues impacting the executive branch of the federal government. In this interview with Madison, Acosta, who was on campus in March to accept the 2016 Ronald E. Carrier Distinguished Alumni Award, discusses the Obama legacy, the American political landscape, U.S. relations with Cuba and the state of journalism.


from the November 2016 digital issue of Madison

Madison: Have you always been interested in politics?

Acosta: I grew up right outside of Washington, D.C., in Northern Virginia, like so many students [at JMU]. My very first field trip that I can remember was when I was in the first grade [and] we saw the hostages come home from Iran. I remember the Washington Post had a reporter go along with us, and they chronicled our observations and our reactions. … They put my name in the newspaper and I was hooked. That was probably the moment, if you were to capture it [and] crystallize it, when I got interested in all of this. I became indoctrinated in “Potomac Fever,” I guess you could say. Later, I pursued all of those interests at James Madison. I got involved in politics, I got involved in journalism and found all those things fascinating and continue to be fascinated by them.

Acosta press conference
Acosta asking a question during a press conference with President Obama

Madison: As someone who has covered the Obama presidency, what do you think will be his legacy?

Acosta: First and foremost, he’s the first African-American president, and that’s history. So whether you like him or you don’t like him, he’s going to be in the history books [as the] first African-American president. Secondly, he inherited the Great Recession. He came into office in the middle of a great economic upheaval in this country. Hundreds of thousands of people were losing their jobs every month. … I think a lot of historians agree that he was able to lead the country through the Great Recession and, to a large extent, stop it from becoming a Great Depression. Now some people disagree as to whether the recovery has helped everybody from top to bottom and so that part of the Obama history will be debatable. [The third thing] in the history books, probably in the first or second paragraph, when you talk about the Obama presidency, he initiated the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, who was the head of al-Qaida and was responsible for the deaths of 3,000 Americans. … I covered the aftermath of 9/11. What people tend to forget is how totally freaked out we were as a country at that time. … It’s no small thing to take out the leader of the organization who carried out the worst attack on American soil in our country’s history. If there’s a fourth thing, it would be health care reform. But I don’t think the final chapter has been written in terms of what will be the outcome of that.

Madison: This election season has underscored how divided America has become politically. When you survey the landscape in this country right now, what is it that you see?

Acosta: I see a country that should be on the verge of an amazing period in our history, and we’re still being held back by these divisions that should’ve been settled decades ago. … You would’ve thought that we would have passed that point by now. Unfortunately we continue to experience divisions along lines of race, sadly, along lines of status, income level … Previous generations have failed us — the Baby Boomers, Generation X. It’s really unfortunate. … I think the task for young people will be to show us another way.

Acosta Cuba
Acosta on location in Havana, Cuba, for CNN in 2009

Madison: Under Obama, we’ve seen a thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. What have been the effects of that policy change, and as a Cuban-American are you hopeful that we’re ushering in a new era of cooperation between the two countries?

Acosta: This is a dicey question for Cuban-Americans. Historically speaking, Cuban-Americans have been an anti-Castro block, and what you’ve seen over the last 10 to 20 years is that slowly going away. I went to Cuba in 2009 when President Obama changed the travel policy for Cuban-Americans going to Cuba. Under George W. Bush, you could only go once every three years. That was fueled by the anti-Castro forces in Miami. When Obama came in, he said to all Cuban-Americans, “You can basically go whenever you want.” That changed things pretty dramatically. Now you see a lot of Cuban-Americans going back and forth and you have a lot of Cubans moving to this country who want to continue to go back and forth. They don’t want to go back to that era of an embargo and being completely isolated and not being able to visit their relatives. So there’s less opposition to normalizing relations between the two countries now because of that policy. … We tried [isolation] for 50 years and it didn’t work. If we tried Social Security, Medicare — you name it — for 50 years and it didn’t work, we would have a different system right now. … It’s time to sort of let bygones be bygones. … With the normalization of relations with Cuba, my hope is that the Cuban government will reciprocate and make some changes on their own. We’re in uncharted waters now.… We tried the embargo, we tried isolation, that didn’t work. I think it’s time to give this a try.

Madison: The field of journalism has come under fire. Critics say that there is no objective reporting anymore and that the 24-hour news cycle emphasizes getting the story first ahead of getting it right. Cable news, the internet and social media have given people all of these options for getting their news. What is it that you would say to a JMU student who wants to go into journalism to reassure them?

Acosta: You’re there to tell people the truth. That might sound corny. When I was getting into the business, there was this thing called Fox News and then there was this thing called MSNBC, and then as soon as those two things happened, along with the explosion of the internet, everybody could just go and get the news from whichever outlet that was basically echoing their opinion. I’ve always gravitated toward news organizations that sort of don’t give a damn about that. As a journalist, your job is to shine flashlights in dark corners. You’re there to uncover the truth. People who try to go in there and make it all about them, who spin things or color them a certain way, or are biased in a certain direction, I think they end up being their own undoing at some point. … So my advice would be, don’t go down that path. You’re supposed to shine flashlights in dark corners, but you also want to be skeptical of the bright lights too. There’s a lot of reward in this business for the hot take and people who pop off on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve always felt that a more reasoned and fair approach is not necessarily the approach everyone likes, but it's the best approach. …  I’ve had people ask me for years, “Are you a Republican? Are you a Democrat?” I grew up in an apolitical environment with blue-collar parents who didn’t vote … and I think it’s made me a pretty good umpire.

Published: Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Last Updated: Monday, February 27, 2017

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