Acosta and the Intern: A Media Double Standard?
The story of a powerful older man physically interfering with a young female intern trying to do her job sounds like it was tailor-made for an era focused on gender and power dynamics. But not when Donald J. Trump is involved.
As President Trump held the traditional post-midterm news conference, CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta continued to speak after the president told him, multiple times, “That’s enough.” A young female White House intern attempted to take the microphone from Acosta to hand it to another reporter. Acosta forcibly held onto the microphone, at one point making contact with the woman’s arm and placing his hand over hers as they wrestled for the mic. After a brief struggle, he managed to overpower her and she was obliged to kneel down and wait for him to finish. In response, the White House revoked Acosta’s White House pass, citing his physical interaction with the intern.
We live in an era in which interactions between men and women in the workplace have been under heightened scrutiny. Business leaders like Sheryl Sandberg have focused attention on the many ways men undermine the authority or equality of women at work. A prominent male media figure forcibly asserting himself because he wanted to keep talking would appear to fit perfectly into this narrative.
Indeed, in announcing its revocation of Acosta’s pass, the White House specifically cited gender power dynamics, noting that it would “never tolerate a reporter placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern.”
In contrast, the news media almost unilaterally dismissed that aspect of the incident. The New York Times called it “brief, benign contact,” the Wall Street Journal termed it “incidental contact with the intern briefly” and Salon offered that “Acosta didn’t do anything wrong.” Late-night comedians even joked about the incident.
The situation was quickly characterized in the media as the White House silencing a frequent critic, rather than a societal question of whether it was acceptable for a male journalist to refuse to acknowledge a young woman’s prerogative and using physical force to prevent her from doing her duties. Initial coverage noted the intern’s gender in passing, but within a week even a Washington Post article referred only to “an intern.”
The progression of media framing of the incident can be seen in the timeline below, charting the percentage of online news coverage monitored by the GDELT Project that mentioned “Acosta” (in blue), Acosta and either “arm” or “contact” anywhere in the article (in orange) and Acosta and either “female” or “woman” (in gray) from last Wednesday through this past Tuesday.
After an initial burst of coverage emphasizing the verbal clash, reporting shifted within a few hours to focus on his physical altercation with the female intern. This focus lasted for just over a day before coverage largely dropped mentions of the intern’s gender or specifics of their physical encounter.
In their place, media outlets largely framed Acosta’s White House ban as an assault on press freedom rather than as a penalty for his physical confrontation with a female aide. A CNN lawsuit, announced this week, to restore Acosta’s press credentials suggests that even at a corporate level the company does not see his actions as problematic.
Putting this all together, the media outlets that have so forcefully covered gender issues in other contexts saw nothing sexist in this encounter. If we’re going to have a conversation about equality in the workplace, the media’s reaction to Acosta’s actions suggests we still have a long way to go.