U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is heading to Asia this week with a single reporter; a White House correspondent from the Independent Journal Review (IJR). A digital news outlet, IJR was founded in 2012 by former Republican political operatives. IJR is a conservative-leaning outlet, bills itself as a digitally savvy news source and has 35 million monthly readers and more than 50 reporters.
One of those reporters, Erin McPike, was offered a place aboard the Secretary’s aircraft for this weeks trip. State Department officials did not immediately respond to multiple inquiries for comment on why IJR and McPike were the only ones offered an opportunity to travel with Tillerson.
It has been a decades long precedent going back to Henry Kissinger for a press pool to travel with the Secretary of State on foreign trips. Tillerson is travelling to South Korea, Japan and China and the State Department initially said that he would not be taking reporters on his plane and they had to fly commercially. The BBC, CNN, New York Times, Washington Post and Reuters all complained to the State Department on this unprecedented break with tradition.
Alex Skatell, IJR’s founder and chief executive, said on Tuesday:
Last week, the State Department officially offered McPike an opportunity to cover the secretary’s upcoming trip to Asia. An official explained that the delegation would be flying on a smaller plane than normal and that press access would be limited. After editorial consultation, McPike accepted the seat.
A statement issues by the State Department Correspondents Association said they were disappointed with Tillerson’s decision to travel to Asia without a full contingent or even a pool reporter due to the size of the plane. One has to wonder if Tillerson selected a smaller plane on purpose to specifically block the press from traveling with him. The statement also said:
Several of our members have traveled commercially to meet Secretary Tillerson on the ground in Asia. We expect that the diplomatic press corps will be afforded access to Secretary Tillerson equal to that given to the reporter on the plane.
For decades, Secretaries of State consistently invited media to travel with them. Invites don’t always get accepted, especially late in a Secretaries tenure, however the invite is still extended. Former Republican Secretaries routinely took 10 or more journalists on their trips, some to conflict zones such as Lebanon and Central America. Mark Toner, acting State Department spokesman, said in a briefing that the agency was considering have a seat available, but had not made a decision as late as Tuesday evening. Toner said:
We’ve been very clear, frankly, that this is a smaller footprint all around, and this is the Secretary’s decision, to travel with a smaller footprint. To some degree, it’s a cost-saving measure.
News organizations that travel with U.S. officials have to pay the U.S. government for the cost of their air travel, so I ask, what exactly are these “cost-saving” measures that Toner was referencing? It seems more like a blatant blocking of the press by Tillerson, who has consistently remained off the grid the last few weeks in regards to the press. Nothing about this administration seems to be “standard.”