Opinion

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan

Secretary Tillerson has dealt with dictators. Why is he scared of a free press?

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo on March 15, 2017. Tillerson will visit Japan, South Korea and China with tensions soaring in the region. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / TORU HANAI (Photo credit should read TORU HANAI/AFP/Getty Images)

TORU HANAI/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo on Wednesday.

What is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson afraid of?

As Exxon’s CEO, he partnered with some of the more unsavory, corrupt, and human-rights-be-damned regimes in the world, including Equatorial Guinea, Angola, and Russia. One reason Trump chose Tillerson was that the Eagle Scout-turned-oil-executive tangoed with ruthless autocrats and cut supposedly good deals for his shareholders. So why would a guy considered savvy and honest by boosters, including former secretary of defense and fellow Boy Scouts president Bob Gates, be scared of reporters accompanying him on the State Department plane, as news outlets have done for half a century?

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The rationale the Trump administration gave for Tillerson refusing to bring press this week on a high-stakes trip to Asia following a North Korean missile test is cost-savings. That’s nonsense. News organizations reimburse the government for air travel, ground transportation, and logistical support; they pay directly for hotels and meals. It doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime. In fact, only major wire services, leading TV networks, and the top national newspapers even have the resources to travel regularly anymore.

Yet there are good reasons news organizations that can afford to travel do so, even in lean times for the news business — and equally good reasons secretaries of state of both parties have brought American reporters on their plane since the Nixon administration. They aren’t doing us a favor. It’s in their interest to try to shape their message, just as it’s in the public’s interest to get as much information as possible.

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Senator Edward Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote Tillerson last Friday warning that traveling without the press sends “a dangerous signal.” He hasn’t heard back, and told me Thursday he worries the public won’t get information they need about decisions that affect national policy.

To state the obvious: Freedom of the press is foundational to democracy. The press is the eyes and ears of the people, and reporters on the State Department plane not only record what the secretary and aides say and do, but observe foreign officials, business leaders, and activists whom the secretary chooses to meet — or not meet. You can gauge a lot about how US policy is playing overseas by how the secretary of state is welcomed (or vilified).

Pointing to our independent media gives our diplomats moral standing when urging others to extend similar freedoms to their people. If we don’t lead by example, how can we demand countries like China, Russia, and Cuba do so? Or, as former President George W. Bush said last month: “It’s kind of hard to tell others to have an independent free press when we’re not willing to have one ourselves.”

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Bush is smart enough to know that Tillerson — or Trump’s White House, if that’s who’s made the call — is making a mistake. Jeff Rathke, a former director of the State Department press office and now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “Talking publicly about US foreign policy goals is a way to build leverage and momentum behind them . . . and there remains no better way to convey United States policy to the world than through engagement with experienced, well-informed journalists.” Leaving out the US press lets other countries shape the message.

Our economy also thrives on transparency and the free flow of information, including tough and trusted reporting on business, markets, and economic indicators — all of which keep our currency and businesses attractive for investors. That too should matter to Trump and Tillerson.

After claiming there was no room on the plane for the press, Tillerson invited one reporter who covers the White House for a conservative-leaning website started by former Republican operatives. Members of the State Department press corps flew commercially and will be unable to get visas for China, keep up with Tillerson’s itinerary, or to talk to his aides on the plane.

I hope the decision will be reversed in future. But for now, it’s hard not to see it as politically motivated.

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist and the Newmark chair in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.
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