The Trump administration’s efforts to rewrite the rules for media coverage reached a furious peak on Wednesday as veteran State Department reporters expressed outrage over Secretary Rex Tillerson’s decision to bring only a reporter from a conservative web site on his first trip to Asia.
“The State Department is the beacon of press freedom around the world. The message now to China in particular when he gets to Beijing is that press freedom doesn’t matter,” MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who is following Tillerson’s trip and broadcasting from Tokyo, said in a recent appearance on-air. “Up until now, Secretaries of State have made it a key demand that our press corps gets into meetings … that there be access for the media … A key component of foreign policy is being undercut by this.”
Tillerson’s move caught most of the media off guard, in part because he has more to gain than lose by courting the diplomatic press corps, which has enjoyed generally good relations with all secretaries of state going back to the Reagan administration. Indeed, of all the branches of the Washington press corps, the State Department’s is widely considered the most staid and serious, the type who actually care about policy versus palace intrigue.
But those same reporters are now furious, frustrated and, in some cases, disgusted by what’s been deemed a violation of tradition and a public trust, with Tillerson’s decision to bring only Erin McPike of Independent Journal Review, a conservative news outlet which made its name with lighthearted videos featuring politicians and viral stories.
McPike has only been with IJR for a few weeks and doesn’t even cover the State Department — she’s its White House reporter and is often in the briefings. McPike won’t be acting as a pool reporter for the rest of the diplomatic press corps, meaning she won’t be sharing information about the trip with other reporters, which is what would normally happen if there was limited space for reporters and only a few were chosen.
“Is this really the message they want to send to the public, as well as other nations? Really? They must, on some level, realize that no one is fooled by the explanations,” said CNN’s senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski.
Mitchell and Kosinski are only two of many reporters who have strongly protested the decision, which also drew the ire of many Washington bureau chiefs and the State Department Correspondents’ Association.
“The State Department Correspondents’ Association is disappointed that Secretary Tillerson chose to travel this week to North Asia without a full contingent of the diplomatic press corps or even a pool reporter,” the association said in a statement.
In the past when the State Department invited a particular reporter on the secretary’s plane, there was always a pool report to keep other reporters aware of what transpired.
This time, however, the State Department initially said it would not be letting any reporters on the trip, meaning that anyone covering the trip would have to make their own travel arrangements and would have no assurance of access to the secretary. The reason, the State Department said, was to save money by using a smaller plane with fewer staff — though reporters noted that past secretaries and officials have traveled on the same plane and brought media along.
But then on Tuesday it was revealed — not initially by the State Department — that McPike had been invited. The decision, State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement, was made “as part of an effort to include a broader representation of US media.”
But at the daily press briefing on Wednesday, reporters hammered Toner for the department’s handling of the situation. Toner, a career State Department official, deflected some of the blame, saying he wasn’t involved in the decision making and isn’t on the trip.
“With respect to this decision, I wouldn’t extrapolate that there’s some intent to ostracize the media in this room,” Toner said, adding that the media will have some access to Tillerson during the trip and that this was an effort to “look at outside-the-box approaches” to how they handle coverage of the secretary. “I can say going forward that every effort will be made to accommodate the press contingent on board the plane.”
But many in the State Department press corps remained aghast at the decision to invite a reporter with little foreign policy experience from news outlet with a clear ideological bent.
IJR was founded in 2012 by Alex Skatell, a former Republican operative, and is owned by Media Group of America, which is co-owned by Phil Musser, a former executive director of the Republican Governors Association who has ties to Vice President Mike Pence.
IJR’s goal has been to fill a void it believes exists in social and mobile-first news, aimed at a young, millennial conservative audience. The site has picked up steam in the past few years, gaining traffic with funny videos of presidential candidates and other viral content. The rising profile paid off with the site co-sponsoring one of the Republican primary debates last year.
The site has made investments in original journalism, though a dozen of their staffers, several of them reporters, have left the site in the past year. IJR says they’ve hired replacements, but former staffers said those who left were more traditional journalists — including Justin Green, Michelle Jaconi, Hunter Schwartz and Kate Glassman Bennett.
Some former employees of the site, speaking on background, said it’s become “more right-wing” and the change in tone made it difficult for them to do their jobs.
In response, Skatell, IJR’s founder, said in a statement: “We take our responsibility as a news organization on the board of News Media Alliance, Digital Content Next and the Trust Project seriously. I’m proud of our reporting team, past and present, and just as we’ve done since we were one writer and a handful of readers, we will continue to invest time and energy into strengthening our team and process.”
Recently, IJR scored a major scoop, reporting hours before it was officially announced that Neil Gorsuch would be Trump’s nominee for the open Supreme Court spot. But few other media organizations picked it up or cited IJR — a reflection, perhaps, of the media establishment not yet taking it seriously.
In another coup of sorts, IJR was tipped off about a dinner Trump was going to be having at his D.C. hotel, while the presidential press pool — the group of reporters who travel with the president at all times — were not told of his destination.
But there was Independent Journal Review’s Benny Johnson, camped out a table prepared to provide an exhaustive nearly minute-by-minute account of the dinner.
Both scoops were based on sources inside the administration, something both reports made clear. But some former staffers said they were uncomfortable with the site waving its banner about scoring scoops and making its journalistic mark while they said its tone has become too pro-administration.
An IJR spokesman did not respond to request for comment about such complaints by press time.
One of the site’s current reporters Joe Perticone rejected this notion, noting on Twitter in response to a tweet that IJR is “state-run media” by saying that his most recent sit-down was with a Democrat who was very critical of Trump.
Skatell defended the decision to send McPike, saying in a statement, “We don’t take this opportunity lightly and recognize the controversy surrounding press access for the trip,” while defending McPike as a “tenacious” reporter who has spent “over a decade of reporting for some of the largest, most respected outlets in Washington” such as CNN, Real Clear Politics and National Journal.
But Skatell has made clear in the past that he and his newsroom are different from the mainstream media. Speaking at a POLITICO panel in January, Skatell wouldn’t say whether IJR would defend other news sites if they were banned by the incoming president. Instead, he said, the onus should be on television news to stand up and make an impact.
“I think it depends how you [the banned outlet] reacted, what the community thought,” Skatell said.
Now, many eyes will be watching for McPike’s report from the trip, and some reporters suggested IJR’s credibility is at stake.
“Remarkable. Huge responsibility if anything goes sideways,” AFP White House correspondent Olivier Knox said on Twitter.
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