When Rex Tillerson quietly announced he was embarking on his first tour as secretary of state in Asia, he made one noticeable decision: He chose not to bring a press corps with him.
It’s an unusual move that bucks a State Department tradition, and journalists have expressed outrage. In a letter sent to the State Department last week, 12 bureau chiefs across major media organizations said they were “deeply concerned” about the decision and urged them to reconsider.
Since the original announcement, the State Department has offered access to one journalist on the Asia trip. Erin McPike, a reporter for the conservative-leaning Independent Journal Review, is accompanying the secretary of state. The State Department Correspondents Association issued a statement of disappointment at the decision.
Indira Lakshmanan, a Boston Globe columnist and the Newmark chair in journalism ethics at Poynter Institute, has years of experience as a State Department press corps member. She covered Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry for Bloomberg, reporting on diplomatic meetings in India, Pakistan, and more. She’s concerned about what Tillerson’s actions mean for transparency, public access, and the future of covering American foreign policy.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
As someone who has traveled in the State Department press corps, what’s your reaction to Rex Tillerson’s decision?
My first reaction is that it’s very troubling. Now, it is understandable on the one hand that he might not be so comfortable doing press meet and greets at the beginning. He didn’t come to this role as a politician or senator as many other recent secretaries of state were.
He’s got a president that has been very forward leading on foreign policy and has even hosted foreign visitors without including the secretary of state in those meetings. That is highly unusual. In that respect, I can imagine he would want to be careful with what he says in the beginning.
What is not understandable is that he has cut off access to the majority of the press on his trip. This is a tradition that goes back decades. It’s not some sort of favor that the government is doing for the media. The press is the eyes and the ears of the American people.
I don’t accept the explanation from White House spokesperson Sean Spicer that Tillerson is trying to save money by taking a smaller plane. The fact is that press have always paid their own way on these trips. It’s extremely expensive to travel with the secretary of state. Reporters have to pay for ground transport, food, hotels. That’s why so few media organizations are really able to do it. So for Spicer to imply that the government can’t afford it is wrong. The American taxpayers are not footing the bill. But it’s the American taxpayers who are getting the benefit of the news organizations being the eyes and the ears of what is happening with American foreign policy.
What is the public missing out on without a press corps there? Investigative work is possible without a seat on the plane.
You absolutely can do fantastic investigative reporting on foreign policy or tons of other topics without being in a traveling press corps. But this is not an either/or situation. When a news organization has a seat on the plane, they get to witness what the secretary of state is doing, which of the major players they are meeting with, whether it be presidents or business leaders, members of civil society, and human rights activists. You get to see who they are not visiting. You get a real sense of what the foreign policy priorities are. You see how they are received in the countries they are visiting.
Are there any events that stand out in your mind as examples of why traveling with the secretary of state helped your coverage?
We often had the opportunity to pool events, meaning one reporter on the trip would get to be the representative for the rest of the traveling press corps at some small event. When Clinton took her first trip to India as secretary of state, I was the pool reporter for a tour of a LEED energy-saving building. Clinton was going to be led around by the Indian environment minister. Afterward, they were going to negotiate climate talks between India and US.
This is an unusual case, but they gave us the tour and then they led us all into a room and shut the door behind us, thinking I was part of the State Department delegation. Then they began their first climate talks. There was no way for me to move, so I ended up hearing and being able to share with the rest of the press pool the first US-India climate talks. It was really instructive to get to see what was being said behind closed doors, what the negotiation consisted of, and what the goals were of the Americans and Indians that eventually ended up in the Paris Climate Agreement.
This access really gives you a chance to be there either literally at the table or be involved in small press conferences that take place immediately after negotiations. Over the course of those years, our press corps made many trips to Pakistan. You could really see the evolution, for example, of the very difficult relationship between these two countries during the Obama administration.
There were a number of pressure points, whether it was drone strikes that the US wasn’t admitting or Osama bin Laden and his whereabouts prior to the raid, and you could tell how the relationship was going based on how the secretary of state was received each visit. You would not have been able to understand this evolving relationship had there not been press traveling along and observing.
How is the press reacting to this lack of access?
A number of news organizations who typically travel with the secretary but were denied access on this trip have formally protested, and are making an effort to travel unilaterally on commercial flights. It’s at great expense and great logistical effort, and they won’t make all the stops. They are still going to be able to report, they just won’t have the same level of access and ability of being right there.
What I hope is that this will settle down. I hope that this is just a case of growing pains. Perhaps Secretary Tillerson is uneasy with the press having only dealt with them previously as a CEO. Or maybe he has a different understanding of the press and what their role should be. I hope he comes around. I would think they would want, in the interest of sunshine and transparency, to let the American people know what they are doing. The entire world is watching us right now. Why not give more information rather than make it harder to understand new policies that affect our national security and interests?
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated one of the countries where Lakshmanan traveled with the State Department press corps. We regret the error.