Locked-Out Media Watch While Trump Administration Retreats Into Secrecy

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

“We want to ensure at all times, if confirmed, that the secretary of state and the State Department is fully transparent with the public.” - Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at his January 11, 2017, confirmation hearing.

On Tuesday, bureau chiefs for major news organizations held a conference call to discuss the fact that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is not going to allow the press to travel with him on his plane during an upcoming trip to Asia. According to Poynter.org, which reported on the call, not allowing reporters on Tillerson’s government plane would be would be “very unusual, if not unprecedented, certainly in recent annals, with substantial access given by recent Secretaries of State, including John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice.”

As Poynter explained, “[T]he logistics of keeping up with [Tillerson] by assembling stringers or hopscotching about on commercials flights makes coverage exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.” According to CNN, a senior official "told reporters Tuesday Tillerson prefers to travel on a smaller plane and 'carries a much smaller footprint.'" Tillerson’s plan to exclude the press from traveling with him overseas represents a stunning State Department policy reversal, while further cementing his image as a secretive cabinet figure who has had virtually no contact with journalists since being sworn in. “The secretary of state has given only a handful of prepared statements to the press and has not taken any questions,” CNN noted.

That veil of secrecy has quickly emerged as the hallmark for this shadowy administration.

It’s important to note that while President Trump’s ongoing war on the press has received most of the attention this year as he threatens journalists and restricts their access, there are plenty of indications that the rampant secrecy and disdain for transparency is widespread. “The retreat from the press has taken place administration-wide,” Politico noted.

There seems to be a collective closing of the gates now underway in terms of the federal government separating itself from journalists.

Just look at what unfolded on Monday:

  • Tillerson, along with Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, held an event with journalists to announce the administration’s latest attempt to restrict travel to the U.S. from six Muslim-majority countries. But none of the men responded to press questions about the controversial initiative.
  • Unlike how the administration treated the original travel ban signing, Trump signed the revised travel ban executive order without photographers or reporters present to record the event.
  • When the White House held a background conference call with reporters to discuss the updated travel ban it did not identify officials on the call, which prompted a New York Times reporter to tweet:

The next day, NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell was escorted from a photo-op with Tillerson and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin after trying to ask several questions. The questions were "met with silence."

All of that constitutes an historic effort by the Trump administration to lock out the press from the government’s official duties and business.

This, of course, comes after the White House’s radical move to banish several major news outlets from a press “gaggle,” likely because the administration was unhappy with what the organizations were reporting. What followed was a highly unusual, weeklong blackout in terms of televised press briefings from White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

That drawing of the curtain is part of a larger administration effort to march back transparency. For instance, in recent weeks there’s been a paucity of senior administration officials available for on-the-record interviews. Traditionally, senior officials, including cabinet members, have been made available for in-depth interviews, especially on the Sunday morning shows. But not the Trump team.

The White House seems to have specifically singled out CNN, repeatedly, and refused to provide officials for interviews there.

Overall, the administration remains reluctant to engage. Just six weeks into Trump’s term and Sunday morning show producers have been reduced to booking (or not booking) the White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders for the weekly programs.

Those who didn’t decline Sanders might’ve wished they had. In her appearance on ABC’s This Week, when confronted about Trump’s wholly unfounded claim that former President Barack Obama had bugged Trump Tower, Sanders said, “I will let the president speak for himself,” to which host Martha Raddatz responded, “You’re his spokesperson.”

The next day, Sanders appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America and tried to argue that Trump’s fantastic claims about Obama and wiretapping were supported by mainstream news reports. (They’re not.) Watching Sanders’ spectacle of unending misinformation and non sequiturs, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted, “You have to use terms like sadism to describe the WH press office now.”

Unable to explain or add context, Trump’s press office remains of little use to working journalists and signifies the administration’s sustained retreat from information.

Perhaps nowhere outside the West Wing is that retreat more apparent than at the State Department, which for the first six weeks of the Trump administration essentially shut off all communication with the public and the press.

Between January 20 and March 6, there were no State Department press briefings. This, despite the fact the media Q & A’s “have been held on a near-daily basis on weekdays since the 1950s, when John Foster Dulles was secretary of state,” according to the Washington Times.

The only explanation given for the State Department silence under the Trump team was that they “needed time to get organized.” But note that the Obama administration quickly began daily State Department briefings as soon as Hillary Clinton was sworn in as secretary of state on January 22, 2009.

Under Trump, the State Department’s chief spokesperson wasn’t even hired until last week. Tillerson himself is still lacking key deputies. “Of the 44 highest-ranking positions at the State Department, the Trump administration has filled one: Tillerson's,” Bloomberg reported last week. (To date, just a handful of ambassadors have been appointed.)

On Tuesday, the State Department finally held its first press briefing, but reporters suspect future briefings will be drastically scaled back to perhaps just twice a week. That would represent another sweeping break from the department’s tradition of media accessibility.

And now we get word that Tillerson’s not bringing the press on his plane for his trip to Asia.

Recall that during his confirmation hearing in January, Tillerson was specifically asked by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) whether his State Department would maintain open and transparent relations with the press, including reporters traveling with him.

He insisted it would:

During the hearing, Booker noted that his staff had tallied the number of press interactions Hillary Clinton and John Kerry had had over the years while serving as secretaries of state. The total came to nearly six thousand.

To date, Tillerson has had almost no interactions. The gates are going down, and the press is being left outside.

UPDATE: 

Poynter reported Thursday that “D.C. bureau chiefs from major news organizations, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the wire services, Fox News and CNN sent a letter to the State Department earlier this week protesting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's decision to ditch reporters on his upcoming trip to Asia.”

Their letter, which was printed in full by Poynter, is below:

Dear Mr. Hammond and Ms. Peterlin,

We are the Washington bureau chiefs and editors of major print, wire, television and radio news organizations. We are writing to request a meeting with both of you as soon as possible to discuss press access to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and coverage of American foreign policy going forward.

We were deeply concerned to hear that Secretary Tillerson plans to travel to Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo to hold key meetings about some of the most important foreign policy issues for the United States without any traveling press. 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. And the offer to help those reporters who want to travel unilaterally is wholly unrealistic, given the commercial flight schedules, visa issues and no guarantee of access once they are there.

But the issues go beyond just the March 14-19 trip and affect the day-to-day coverage of the nation’s top diplomat and U.S. relations with the rest of the world.

Please let us know when a small group of us could come by to see if we can work out an arrangement that suits all of us.

Thank you,

Wendy Benjaminson
Acting Washington Bureau Chief
The Associated Press

Bryan Boughton
Fox News Channel
Washington Bureau Chief

Elisabeth Bumiller
Washington Bureau Chief
New York Times

Edith Chapin
Executive Editor
NPR

Paul Danahar
BBC Americas Bureaux Chief

Sam Feist
CNN Washington Bureau Chief

Peter Finn
National Security Editor
The Washington Post

Keith Johnson
Acting Managing Editor, News
Foreign Policy

Weston Kosova
Washington Bureau Chief
Bloomberg

David Lauter
Washington Bureau Chief
Los Angeles Times/Chicago Tribune

Yolanda Lopez
Central News Director
VOA

David Millikin
North America bureau chief
AFP

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