The Fix | Analysis
March 20, 2017 at 10:05 AM
This post has been updated.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has it backward. He thinks press access is about him.
On his just-completed trip to Asia, Tillerson allowed only one journalist, Erin McPike of the Independent Journal Review, to travel with him. And when McPike asked in a weekend interview whether Tillerson would permit a fuller press corps to accompany him in the future, the former ExxonMobil chief executive said decisions will depend on "my needs."
"It's gonna be trip dependent," Tillerson said. "It doesn't mean we won't, but we're gonna look at every trip in terms of what my needs are. Look my — first and foremost is what is my mission and why am I going? How can I best accomplish that mission? What's the most effective way for me to do that? I'm not a big media press access person. I personally don't need it."
"Doing daily availability," he added, "I don't have this appetite or hunger to be that, have a lot of things, have a lot of quotes in the paper or be more visible with the media."
Apparently previous secretaries of state who interacted regularly with reporters were emotionally needy. Or something.
Tillerson works for a president who doesn't like to share the spotlight, so perhaps it is good that he is not an attention seeker. But to say that press access is something "I personally don't need" is to miss the point entirely.
Press access is about what the public needs, not what the secretary of state needs. Tillerson claimed to get the concept at his confirmation hearing, when he said, "We want to ensure at all times, if confirmed, that the secretary of state and the State Department is fully transparent with the public."
Even then, however, Tillerson would not commit to allowing journalists to travel with him.
Tillerson clearly believes that in diplomatic talks there is little value in keeping voters apprised of his thinking along the way, which suggests he is not interested in recalibrating, based on public opinion.
"You've asked me a lot of questions here that I didn't answer, and I'm not answering them because we have some very, very complex strategic issues to make our way through with important countries around the world, and we're not going to get through them by just messaging through the media," Tillerson told McPike. "We get through them in face-to-face meetings behind closed doors. We can be very frank, open, and honest with one another, and then we'll go out and we'll have something to share about that. But the truth of the matter is all of the tactics and all of the things we're going to do, you will know them after they've happened."
For a man who has never worked in the State Department — or in government, period — Tillerson is remarkably confident in his ability to get things done behind closed doors, without public input, then notify the press after the fact.
David E. Sanger, the New York Times' veteran national security correspondent, noted in Monday's paper that Tillerson's predecessors used media availabilities to generate feedback:
In past administrations, the State Department would have used the long flight to Asia to give reporters a sense of its arguments and long-term strategy. The secretary of state would have wandered back to the press seats on the plane and offered, on "background," the administration's thinking about the major issue of the day. Kissinger was a master of this spin; James A. Baker III, Colin L. Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton were no novices, either. And often, it is more than spin: It is a way for the secretary to test whether an idea has a half-life longer than the plane ride.
On Twitter, Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler offered a prime example of how idea testing through the media can work:
What is apparent from his interview with IJR is that Tillerson sees no need for such tests. It is also obvious that he still has a businessman's mind-set. Tillerson sees no strategic advantage to media access, so he doesn't allow it. The idea that public servants sometimes do things that are not strategically advantageous simply because they serve the public has not sunk in.