The only reporter traveling with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during this week’s trip to Asia recently authored a puff piece on Tillerson’s close relationship with President Donald Trump that was based almost entirely on an anonymous Tillerson aide.
Last week, the State Department announced that Tillerson would not allow the press to travel with him on his government plane during his trip to Japan, South Korea, and China, an extremely unusual step that will reportedly make it “exceedingly difficult, if not impossible” for journalists to cover the proceedings.
D.C. bureau chiefs from a host of major news outlets sent a letter to the State Department last Tuesday protesting Tillerson’s decision. According to the letter, “Not only does this situation leave the public narrative of the meetings up to the Chinese foreign ministry as well as Korea’s and Japan’s, but it gives the American people no window whatsoever into the views and actions of the nation’s leaders.”
At yesterday’s State Department press briefing, just hours before Tillerson was scheduled to take off, spokesperson Mark Toner was still unwilling to divulge whether any reporters would be traveling on the plane. But eventually, news broke that one reporter would be on board when the plane lifted off: Erin McPike, the White House correspondent for the conservative website Independent Journal Review.
According to IJR founder Alex Skatell, who previously worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Republican Governors Association, McPike got the spot because of her “tenacious, detailed brand of reporting.” According to the State Department’s Toner, the agency wanted to “take a journalist from an outlet that doesn’t normally travel with the Secretary of State, as part of an effort to include a broader representation of US media.”
But it sure seems likely the State Department rewarded McPike because she was willing to help a Tillerson aide burnish the secretary's reputation.
The glowing beat-sweetener, published two weeks ago, is a rebuttal to the widespread narrative that Tillerson has been largely sidelined by the White House, lacks influence with the president, and is unwilling to engage with the press or the public. Based on her interview with an unnamed “aide to the nation’s top diplomat,” who boasts that Tillerson frequently speaks with Trump on the phone, McPike decides that this is all Tillerson’s “strategy to keep his head down while he sets out to make the State Department more efficient.”
McPike grants the aide anonymity to give quotes like, “If Trump closes the deal, Rex is the person who makes the deal.” She goes on to praise the aide’s statement: “It's a comment that suggests Tillerson may have figured out how to ingratiate himself well with his TV star boss: eschew the cameras and make the boss look better.”
McPike appears to have figured out how to ingratiate herself with the State Department: Make the boss look better.
The State Department Correspondents Association responded by saying that that it was “disappointed” Tillerson chose to travel to Asia “without a full contingent of the diplomatic press corps or even a pool reporter.” According to the association, several reporters “have traveled commercially to meet Secretary Tillerson on the ground in Asia.”
“I covered State for more than nine years,” The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler said on Twitter in response to the statement. “What just happened is shocking -- and counterproductive for US diplomacy.”
For its part, IJR is not interested in solidarity with the rest of the press corps; McPike reportedly is not filing pool reports from the plane. It’s the second time this month the site has been rewarded with exclusive access while the rest of the press was shut out; when Trump ditched the press for a dinner at the Trump Hotel, the website’s Benny Johnson had been tipped off and filed a fawning report after sitting at a nearby table.
And there’s little reason to think that this will be the last time Tillerson -- or another member of the administration -- ditches the press in favor of hand-picking a reporter from a right-wing outlet who has proved willing to play ball.
“I want to make the point going forward that we’re going to make every effort in future trips to have a contingent of press onboard that plane,” State Department spokesperson Toner said at the press briefing yesterday.
Why should reporters believe this?
If the administration wanted to have the diplomatic press corps accompany Tillerson to Asia, officials could have arranged that. But they haven’t.
According to the State Department, while the secretary has access to an Air Force Boeing 757, Tillerson “prefers to travel on a smaller plane” which has no room for the press corps. That personal preference apparently outweighed any responsibility the secretary feels about providing the press with access. Part of the rationale is that this is “a cost-saving measure” because news outlets only “pay a degree” of the costs associated with sending journalists to travel with the secretary.
None of this will change the next time Tillerson leaves the country on the nation’s business. His personal preferences about the size of his plane presumably will remain the same. So will the cost structure for bringing the press.
There are only two plausible options. Either circumstances will remain the same, and the press will still have limited access to Tillerson when he travels.
Or Tillerson will switch back to a plane that can accommodate the diplomatic press corps, suggesting that the decision with regard to the Asia trip was arbitrary, intended to send a message to journalists: Act more like McPike, and you, too, can have access to the secretary.