My Acosta moment was in a different universe from the Trump White House

Screenshots of CBC Newsworld coverage of my tense and physical encounter with Jean Chrétien in November of 2000

When I saw that CNN reporter Jim Acosta had been stripped of his White House credentials by an angry President Donald Trump after a tense encounter during a press conference, my mind immediately went back to a day in late 2000, on Parliament Hill.

I was then a political reporter for The Toronto Star and had gotten right up into the face of the feisty Jean Chrétien, who was nearing the end of his second term as Canada’s prime minister and within days, would call the election that would see him win a third term.

Chrétien lost his temper when I persistently asked him a question that he just didn’t want to answer that day — why his MPs had boycotted a meeting with the Auditor General, who was scheduled to give scathing testimony about a government scandal of the day.

I dogged Chrétien across the lobby of the House of Commons, asking him again and again why his MPs didn’t show up for the meeting, a boycott that resulted in the Auditor General being denied the chance to speak.

For his part, Chrétien kept growling the same non-answer: “I don’t know.” Finally, as we came to the top of a stairwell that would lead Chrétien out to his waiting car, I found myself physically in his way. After I thrust my recorder into Chrétien’s face and asked again “You don’t know?” the prime minister finally snapped. The wiry Chrétien grabbed me by the arm, roughly thrust me to the side and snarled: “Would you get out of my way — please.”

Looking back, I guess I had my Acosta moment. Except the physical confrontation with the microphone had been between the reporter and the prime minister himself, not with a staff member.

“Would you get out of my way — please,” the prime minister growled as he grabbed my arm and pushed me out of his way.

The result? I had my 15 minutes of fame as a reporter when media across the country reported that the prime minister had had an angry, physical confrontation with a persistent journalist. The Toronto Star heard nothing from the prime minister’s office. Silence.

A couple of days later, Chrétien was hosting a formal press conference with the visiting French President Jacques Chirac. When it came time for questions, dozens of hands popped up. Chrétien surveyed the crowd, swept an outstretched hand across the room and then pointed to me. “Mr. Thompson,’’ he said, giving me the honour of posing the first question to a visiting head of state.

It would simply never have occurred to anyone in Canada’s Parliamentary Press Gallery that a reporter who got in the face of the prime minister should lose the right to ask questions on Parliament Hill.

President Trump’s brutish and appalling attacks on media — “the enemies of the people” as he calls them — are foreign to Canadian political culture, and not by accident.

There has always been a fundamental difference between the way Canadian reporters and their American counterparts interact with elected officials.

At the White House, it has become routine for Trump to tell reporters to sit down and to instruct White House staff to take away the microphone. That’s because in the American system, the White House and President of the day actually preside over press conferences. They run the show. And White House reporters have always showed a surprising deference to the President, a deference that has always astonished Canadian reporters who visit the White House for the first time.

On Parliament Hill, press conferences are actually run by the journalists themselves, through protocols and traditions enshrined by the Parliamentary Press Gallery. So when the prime minister of the day holds a formal press conference, it is usually held in the National Press Theatre, which is operated by the Parliamentary Press Gallery. The prime minister doesn’t preside over that press conference or choose the questioners. A member of the press gallery actually chairs those events and compiles and manages a list of who will pose the next question, based on a show of hands.

After our tense encounter on Parliament Hill, Chrétien would often jokingly grab me by the neck when we’d meet in informal settings. This photo was taken at a press gallery dinner.

And when the prime minister, party leaders and cabinet members take questions more informally in scrums in the foyer of the House of Commons, they are usually speaking into microphones installed and managed by the Parliamentary Press Gallery, the organization that represents journalists accredited to work on Parliament Hill.

Canada’s prime minister simply cannot order that the microphone be taken away from a reporter, the way Trump does on a routine basis. The prime minister and other elected officials can of course refuse to answer a question, they can insult or parry with reporters, or shun them out of anger. But simply put, a Canadian political leader could not do what Trump did with CNN’s Jim Acosta.

And we should celebrate that.

It may not always be pretty, but Canadian journalists have long had the right to put tough questions to our political leaders, without fear of sanction.

Those who are appalled by what they see unfolding south of the border need to realize how important it is to safeguard the independence of our own political reporters and the vital role they play in holding our elected officials to account.

Chrétien gets ready to grab me by the neck during one of our last meetings before I left The Toronto Star in 2003 for a teaching job at Carleton.

As for myself and Chrétien, our tense encounter that day became a bit of a running joke. Any time we would meet in an informal setting after that, Chrétien would grab me by the neck, mimicking his famous Shawinigan handshake.

Because of Canada’s enshrined traditions of freedom of the press, my Acosta moment was in a different political universe from what passes for normal in today’s Washington.