See if you can spot something awry in this news alert tweeted Wednesday by the Associated Press:
The news itself was only mildly surprising. A sit-down with Putin was not on Tillerson's original itinerary for this week's visit to Moscow, but it was not shocking that the Russian leader decided to make time, after all.
What was striking was the source. The AP learned of the meeting not from Tillerson's team but from Putin's.
What's more, after allowing U.S. journalists to accompany him to the Osobnyak Guest House in Moscow for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Tillerson ditched reporters before meeting Putin at the Kremlin.
Throughout the day, Russia drove U.S. media coverage by pushing out a steady stream of information (or disinformation) that the State Department was slow to match. Go back and check out the AP's string of updates, and note how many of them were based on statements by the Russians.
In one glaring example of Russia's messaging advantage, the AP published this alert at 1:45 p.m. Eastern: “Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Moscow and Washington have agreed on the need for the United Nations to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria.”
Then, at 3:28, the AP published this alert: “The United States is disputing that it has agreed with Russia on the need for a United Nations investigation into a chemical weapons attack in Syria.”
For 1 hour and 43 minutes, the State Department allowed Russia's version of events to go unchecked. It put Russia in control by not communicating with reporters more frequently.
Tillerson has said he sees no value in constantly updating journalists on his conversations with foreign diplomats. “I’m not a big media press access person,” he told the Independent Journal Review last month. “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.”
The secretary continues: “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 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."
So, the State Department will tell the media (and, by extension, the American public) what is going on after it has happened. In the meantime, foreign powers can handle the updates.
Tillerson might be taking his cues from the White House. After President Trump spoke Tuesday with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale tweeted side-by-side readouts of the conversation provided by the United States and China.
As you can see, the White House summary was a single paragraph devoid of any detail. Apparently people don't need to know what the two leaders talked about; people just need to know that the conversation was “very productive.” (Everyone nod, please.)
China, meanwhile, issued a 14-paragraph description of the call. So, all we know about the discussion is what China told us.
The Trump administration surely enjoys starving the media of information. After all, the president considers journalists to be “the lowest form of life.” But his stonewalling is not just hurting news outlets he doesn't like: It is ceding power to other countries.