With President Trump sending more troops to the southern border, pulling some out of Syria and causing uncertainty among allies in NATO, now would seem to be a good time for the Pentagon’s brass to be getting its message out about the U.S. military.
Instead, the Pentagon’s leadership is doing less press. Top officials haven’t given an on-camera briefing to reporters since August. When acting defense secretary Patrick M. Shanahan spoke to the news media for the first time this week, it was “off camera,” meaning no one could televise or make a video recording of what he said.
Over at the State Department, the daily press briefing — once held literally daily — has become a hit-and-miss event. Before the government shutdown obliterated any briefings at all in mid-December, department officials averaged just six briefings per month during the preceding three months. The briefings got briefer, too: In previous administrations, officials spent an hour or more addressing questions about U.S. diplomatic initiatives around the world; more recently, the sessions have lasted about 25 minutes.
The White House set a record in January for the longest period in modern history without holding a press briefing, the Q&A sessions that establish a record of administration policies. But these days, it’s not just the White House that isn’t talking much to the news media. The State and Defense departments — the diplomatic and military arms of the world’s only superpower — have been curtailing their outreach with reporters, too.
For decades, the State Department had a proud tradition of briefing reporters five days a week. The sessions were widely followed inside Foggy Bottom, at embassies across Washington and ministries around the world for clues about America’s foreign policy. That changed under Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and has continued under his successor, Mike Pompeo.
The Pentagon had frequent briefings, too, as well as less formal “gaggles,” in which spokesmen discussed an array of topics. These sessions used to occur twice a week but are now held once or twice a month.
Both the Pentagon and the State Department have cut back on the number of reporters who travel with the secretaries on their trips abroad. The press retinue on the secretary of state’s frequent trips used to consist of 13 newspaper, wire service, radio and TV reporters and technicians; now it’s typically seven or eight, although the department says the number can vary depending on the size of the plane and the security arrangements. The defense secretary’s plane can take 18 in the press compartment; under former secretary of defense Jim Mattis, the press section had half or fewer than that number.
The cutback forced some reporters to book commercial flights to follow Pompeo on his recent to visit to eight countries in the Middle East. One problem: Pompeo’s schedule and commercial flight restrictions — regional rivals Qatar and Saudi Arabia do not permit reciprocal flights, for instance — meant reporters had to skip chunks of the trip.
Such limitation have forced journalists to increase their reliance on “pool” reporting to cover Pompeo’s travels, in which one reporter produces an account of events that is shared with the rest of the press corps. This arrangement, however, means there’s only one journalist, rather than multiple ones, covering the news.
It also means the public finds out less about decisions and actions on its behalf, reporters say.
“The briefing is the way an ordinary person, whether you’re sitting in St. Louis or Tennessee or the middle of Africa or Asia” learns about U.S. diplomacy, said Lesley Wroughton, a Reuters reporter who is president of the State Department Correspondents Association. “If you want to understand what the American attitude is, the briefing is the way to get at that. It’s also the way to hold the State Department and the administration accountable for their actions — by allowing reporters to ask questions, whether you like the questions or not. Without it, there are a lot of unknowns.”
In a statement, acting State Department press secretary Robert Palladino said Pompeo “has taken steps to increase media engagement at the State Department, across the United States, and around the world. No surprise that journalists want even more access — they wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t.”
His department cited statistics to bolster its record: Pompeo has appeared in eight televised briefings since his appointment in April, and given remarks or interviews 72 times while traveling abroad.
Pentagon spokesman Tom Crosson also said media relations are on the upswing. He said Mattis’s successor, Shanahan, is just getting started and has vowed to be more open with reporters. “He and other senior leaders will engage more frequently,” he said. “We’re working toward more engagement. . . . This is not a war on the media.”
Both the State and Defense departments say the travel restrictions on reporters are the result of logistical considerations, such as security arrangements, rather than an attempt to limit the press.
Nevertheless, beat reporters attribute the departments’ diminished interactions with the news media to the White House, which they say prefers to control the message.
The reluctance of the Pentagon’s leadership to engage with reporters “is all a direct response to this White House and this president,” he said. “No one [at the Pentagon] wants to get crosswise with the president. They feel if they say the wrong thing, they’ll be in the crosshairs of the White House. What has happened under Trump is that it has all come to a screeching halt.”
Baron said Mattis avoided the news media because he was reluctant to air his disagreements with the president in public (Mattis’s repudiation of Trump, however, became explicit in his resignation letter in December). As a result, both Mattis and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have typically interacted with the press via off-camera “gaggles,” informal sessions that the public — and White House officials — don’t see (though Dunford has done multiple interviews and media appearances over the past year).
Reporters say their inability to get direct comment from senior officials has caused them to seek secondhand sources, whose knowledge is invariably more limited. They also say they have had more background interviews — those in which sources speak without being directly identified. Trump has railed against leaks and the practice of using anonymous sources in news stories, but the curtailed access to top officials may have led to an increase in both.
Improved access wouldn’t just make journalists’ jobs easier, it would also be good for the public, said Robert Burns, an Associated Press reporter who heads the Pentagon Press Association. The less government leaders engage, he said, “the less the public learns about what their government is doing on their behalf.”
Correction: This story originally stated that top Pentagon officials haven’t given an on-camera briefing to reporters since May. There was a briefing in August. The story has also been updated to clarify that Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. has spoken to the media outside of off-camera gaggles.