The US State department caused a full-on brouhaha in Washington media circles when it said journalists wouldn’t join secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his trip to South Korea, Japan and China, which began today.
DC bureau chiefs sent an aggrieved letter, CNN anchor Jake Tapper called the move “unusual and insulting,” and the White House press secretary claimed Tillerson was cutting costs by taking a smaller plane. (Media organizations traditionally reimburse the government for all flights, so what costs were being cut was unclear.)
But, it turns out, the “state-run version of events” will indeed be mediated by American journalists. Well, one journalist: Erin McPike, White House correspondent for the Independent Journal Review.
IJR was founded in 2012 by former Republican operatives, and gained attention by ratcheting up hits for funny viral videos with a pro-Republican slant, leading it to be variously dubbed the “BuzzFeed for conservatives“ and the “right wing’s Upworthy.” Lead stories on its website at the time of writing included one on a “nude photo scandal” in the Marines and a compilation of GIFs showing children sledding down Capitol Hill in the snow, alongside straight news stories on Trump’s tax returns and replacing Obamacare.
Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, said the decision undermines the “very important ritual” of American officials facing questions from their own reporters alongside those of a foreign leader, which tells the other country, “This is what our democracy is like. What’s yours like?”
“This ritual is part of America’s soft power,” Rosen wrote in an email. “But it requires the press to be there: a group. Not a favored publication. That says something completely different. The State Department is supposed to be the part of the government that understands these things.”
Tillerson has cut a low-key figure since taking office; many have called on him to take a much larger role in moderating president Donald Trump’s foreign-policy stances. Mexico’s foreign secretary notably snubbed him on trip to Washington last week. A State department spokesman said the low media coverage was Tillerson’s decision and echoed the White House in saying, “to some degree, it’s a cost-saving measure.”