Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision not to allow a contingent of reporters to accompany him on his Asia trip — as surely he anticipated — hasn’t gone over well with the news media. The fact that the one reporter allowed to go on the trip works for a conservative website most people haven’t heard of seemed almost calculated to offend.
There are, of course, sound practical arguments for including reporters on major diplomatic missions; note, for instance, The Post’s editorial on the subject or an analysis by the New York Times’s David E. Sanger. By speaking to the traditionally less confrontational diplomatic press corps, the nation’s chief diplomat can embolden allies and put adversaries on notice. And in any case, America has an interest in not being perceived as shunning media coverage.
True enough, which is presumably why State Department spokesman Mark Toner represented Tillerson’s decision as an attempt to “look at outside-the-box approaches” to media coverage: “I can say going forward,” Toner said to a press gathering shortly after the decision was announced, “that every effort will be made to accommodate the press contingent on board the plane.”
Tillerson’s decision looks less like a policy and more like a signal — an announcement that, whoever is or isn’t allowed to accompany the secretary on future trips, the relationship between the State Department and the news media is about to change significantly.
And the change might just be for the better.
Begin by reading the remarks by Tillerson that caused so much angst among journalists. Would he or would he not allow groups of reporters on future trips? “It’s gonna be trip dependent,” he begins.
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. I understand it’s important to get the message of what we’re doing out, but I also think there’s only a purpose in getting the message out when there’s something to be done. And so we have a lot of work to do, and when we’re ready to talk about what we’re trying to do, I will be available to talk to people. But doing daily availability, 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. I view that the relationship that I want to have with the media, is the media is very important to help me communicate not just to the American people, but to others in the world that are listening. And when I have something important and useful to say, I know where everybody is and I know how to go out there and say it. But if I don’t because we’re still formulating and we’re still deciding what we’re going to do, there is not going to be a lot to say.
The key term is “access”: “I’m not a big media press access person.” Many in the media have interpreted the remark as a full-on rejection of any responsibility to speak to the news media. In context, he denies that interpretation. In any case, however, consider more closely that word “access.”
“Access” often has a pejorative meaning in the world of politics, and it’s worth considering the way it’s typically used from the governmental side — i.e. the way it’s used, not always but frequently, by politicians and their media relations staff. Offering reporters access to the principal — a senator, a governor, a president, a secretary of state — is a means by which political offices try to elicit positive media coverage. Speak directly and at length to specific reporters, give them insider knowledge and generally treat them as important players who can be trusted with sensitive material, and you’re more likely to shape coverage of this or that issue to your liking.
Journalists sometimes forget just how cynically politicos speak of them behind closed doors. (Indeed politicos often forget just how cynically journalists speak of them — but leave that aside for now.) Many of these politicians and political staffers — maybe most of them? — view reporters not as representatives of the public but as entities to manage. The goals of this “media management”? The appearance of public support, free advertising for policies, career advancement. Nothing, in any case, so high-minded as transparency or accountability to the people. Offering reporters “access” is often — not always, but more often than reporters would enjoy knowing — part of that deeply but unavoidably cynical game.
With that in view, read Tillerson’s comment again, particularly these four sentences:
I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it. I understand it’s important to get the message of what we’re doing out, but I also think there’s only a purpose in getting the message out when there’s something to be done … But doing daily availability, I don’t have this appetite or hunger to be that … have a lot of quotes in the paper or be more visible with the media.
I read these remarks not as an expression of contempt for the media, but as a rejection of the access/management game. By saying he doesn’t “need it” and has no “appetite or hunger” for “daily availability,” I think Tillerson is saying he doesn’t care about cultivating reporters in an effort to win favorable coverage. He would rather spend his time working on negotiations and policies, in other words, than on manipulating press coverage.
I could be wrong. Tillerson may turn out to be just as cynical a media manipulator as any other politician or high-ranking official. But reporters should at least consider the possibility — and it applies, I think, to the entire Trump administration — that full access can cloud judgment and confuse issues as often as it clarifies. Going without it has its advantages.