A website run by former Republican campaign operatives is the only news outlet to get a seat on the plane of secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he travels this week to Japan, South Korea and China.
The breach of protocol — journalists who cover the State Department normally fly on the secretary’s plane — comes as President Trump has branded mainstream news organizations as “the enemy of the people.”
Erin McPike of the right-leaning website Independent Journal Review is the lone journalist permitted to fly on Tillerson’s plane. The decision to bar other news outlets was a way to give access to a “broader representation of U.S. media,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
“This is just an attempt to reach beyond the usual suspects, and I’m not trying to say that in a demeaning way at all,” Toner told reporters Wednesday at the State Department.
The decision has wide ramifications.
North Korea’s pursuit of a long-range nuclear missile that could strike the West Coast poses a major challenge for the new president, and Trump’s bellicose rhetoric on trade with China has strained U.S. relations with Beijing.
As a result, Tillerson’s opening trip to Asia as America’s chief diplomat is far from routine.
Why does it matter that only an Independent Journal Review reporter is flying with Tillerson?
For decades, reporters steeped in the complexities of foreign affairs have traveled abroad with U.S. secretaries of State.
The absence of any seasoned diplomatic correspondents from nonpartisan news outlets means that Tillerson, a former CEO of Exxon, will be less likely to face questions of substance about Trump’s foreign policy.
Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists, faulted Tillerson for a “complete lack of transparency.” The nuclear threat from North Korea, he said, made it especially important for Tillerson to respond to questions from reporters with expertise in Asian affairs.
“This is something that’s absolutely critical for the American people, and for people around the world, to understand and to evaluate, because it is potentially a life-and-death situation,” Butler told CNN.
It is not yet clear how much access Tillerson will provide local reporters and those who fly commercial to Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing.
What is Independent Journal Review?
It’s a conservative news website founded by Alex Skatell, who was media director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 2012 elections. For the 2010 elections, Skatell was director of new media and technology at the Republican Governors Assn.
Skatell’s bio on the IJR website omits both positions.
IJR’s parent company, Media Group of America, was co-founded by Skatell and Phil Musser, a former executive director of the Republican Governors Assn. Musser was a senior advisor to Republican Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Does McPike have much experience covering foreign affairs?
No. The bulk of her career as a reporter since 2006 has been covering political campaigns. McPike reported on politics for NBC News, the National Journal and RealClearPolitics. As a White House correspondent at CNN, she filed reports on the Islamic State militant group and the Russian incursion into Ukraine.
On her LinkedIn profile, McPike lists her specialties as “profiles of leading national & up-and-coming political figures, early trend coverage, positive & inspiring stories; connector and mentor.” For two months, she has been IJR’s White House correspondent.
Will McPike have to share her reporting from the plane with the rest of the news media?
No. When space limitations make it impossible for large groups of reporters to cover a top official, the news media often agree on an arrangement to assign “pool” reporters who share all of their notes on an event with the news organizations that were excluded.
In this case, the State Department simply invited McPike on the plane to write for IJR. She has no obligation to other news outlets.
Have other news organizations protested?
Yes. The State Department Correspondents Assn. released a statement saying it was disappointed.
“After saying it was unable to accommodate press on the secretary’s plane to Asia due to space and budget constraints, the State Department offered a unilateral seat to one reporter,” the statement said.
The association has repeatedly argued for the same kind of access to Tillerson that was afforded by previous secretaries of State.
Will leaving reporters off Tillerson’s plane save the government money?
No. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said there was an “element of cost savings” in banishing reporters from Tillerson’s plane. But, in fact, news organizations pay their own way.
Is this part of a Trump strategy to discredit the mainstream news media?
It could be seen that way. Trump has described himself as fighting a “war” against the nation’s top newspapers and television networks. Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, has called the media the “opposition party.”
And Spicer’s belligerence toward the White House press corps has given rise to a “Saturday Night Live” parody by actress Melissa McCarthy.
At the State Department briefing Wednesday, Tillerson’s spokesman remained calm as irate reporters interrogated him over McPike’s exclusive access. It was a scene that fit neatly with White House efforts to cast the media as Trump’s opposition.
Toner said the administration was trying to reach a broader audience. Reporters asked how that was possible when IJR has a narrowly defined, if large, readership.
“New audiences,” Toner said.
“Conservative audiences?” a reporter asked. “A friendly audience?”
“A new perspective,” Toner said.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.