Media protests after Tillerson takes only one reporter to Japan

The president is suddenly press-shy
The president is suddenly press-shy

State Department reporters are strongly protesting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's decision to fly to Asia without his traveling press corps.

Instead, Tillerson invited a single reporter from a startup news site with a conservative bent.

The site, Independent Journal Review, or IJR for short, does not have a well-established track record of covering foreign policy. The IJR reporter, Erin McPike, has yet to file any stories about the trip.

Tillerson arrived in Japan, the first stop on his trip, late Wednesday local time.

Tillerson's decision to exclude journalists stirred complaints because it broke with decades of tradition and may impede news coverage of American foreign policy moves. Some veteran reporters privately described it as insulting.

The State Department Correspondents Association said in a statement that the group "is disappointed that Secretary Tillerson chose to travel this week to North Asia without a full contingent of the diplomatic press corps or even a pool reporter."

The group has been in talks with Tillerson's deputies "about a variety of issues related to media access," the statement said, "and we welcome the State Department's pledge to address our concerns in the very near future."

The State Department claimed that the press corps could not be accommodated because Tillerson opted for a smaller plane to save money. This excuse rang hollow to members of the press corps. Past secretaries of state, both Republican and Democrat, have traditionally traveled with a small group of reporters. News organizations pay for the cost of the reporters' travel.

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Tillerson took a C-40 to Asia, which is a military version of a Boeing 737. Depending on the configuration, a C-40 can seat anywhere between 26 and 111 people.

Normally, when there are space constraints on a trip, arrangements are made for a small "pool" of reporters. But the State Department didn't accommodate that either.

On Wednesday, acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner rationalized the unusual invite for IJR by calling it "an effort to include a broader representation of the U.S. media" and "an attempt to reach beyond the usual suspects."

But IJR is a relatively small website. Billed as a "social first, mobile first news company," it was launched by former Republican political consultants in late 2012.

Alex Skatell, a founder of IJR, acknowledged the controversy about trip access in a statement on Tuesday.

"We don't take this opportunity lightly," he said.

The travel offer came from the State Department, and "after editorial consultation, McPike accepted the seat," he said.

McPike previously worked for CNN, RealClearPolitics and National Journal. While she has years of experience covering Washington, she is not a State Department beat reporter.

However, she did write an upbeat story two weeks ago about Tillerson's strategy to "keep his head down while he sets out to make the State Department more efficient."

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Without normal access, some State Department beat reporters are flying commercially, trying to keep up with Tillerson. NBC's Andrea Mitchell anchored her weekday MSNBC program from Tokyo on Wednesday.

"We expect that the diplomatic press corps will be afforded access to Secretary Tillerson equal to that given to the reporter on the plane," the correspondents association said in its statement.

On Wednesday Toner said that the beat reporters who flew to Asia "are going to have access to Secretary Tillerson's media availabilities, press sprays. I think he's going to do a press avail as well."

And he said he doesn't know if this arrangement "is going to be status quo or the new order going forward."

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