Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon CEO, is undoubtedly familiar with "tone at the top," a term coined by audit firms and drilled home by business ethicists in the wake of financial scandals at Xerox, Enron and Arthur Andersen. When corporate leaders fail to model tone at the top by upholding principles, corners are cut and lapses trickle down and poison institutional culture.
And yet Tillerson, whose upstanding image as a former Boy Scouts of America president helped him get confirmed as the face of U.S. policy to the world, is failing badly to set tone at the top on a foundational principle of American democracy: the indispensable role of a free press.
Rather than advocating for U.S. interests and values, Tillerson has ducked news conferences, ignored shouted questions, kept answers on a recent trip to under two dozen words, and trashed five decades of bipartisan tradition dating back to the Nixon era by refusing to bring State Department press on his plane to Asia this week.
That’s not how this job works.
The excuse the White House and State Department have given — that they want to save money — is bunk. News organizations reimburse the government for transport and logistics, so there’s no cost to taxpayers. I spent seven years traveling with Secretaries Hillary Clinton and John Kerry for Bloomberg News and can vouch that the charges to newsrooms were colossal — upwards of $10,000 for a four-city trip to Asia. Seats are limited — usually to 10 to 20 beat reporters — meaning only leading wire services, newspapers and TV networks can afford to travel regularly.
Believe me that it’s done as a public service; flying cabbage class on a red-eye in the rear of an aging Air Force 737 after an interminable day of talks in Baghdad, headed for longer negotiations in Kabul, is no vacation. The reporters onboard are working their tails off, exhaustively reporting on what America’s top diplomat says and does, whom they meet and whom they don’t, whether they achieved their goals and how U.S. foreign policy is resonating — or ricocheting — overseas.
As a corporate chieftain, Tillerson was insulated from the media by layers of highly paid public relations specialists. He was rarely expected to answer media queries and never had to travel with reporters. Those days are over. He works for the public now and should think of the press as his new shareholders, with every right to ask tough questions, record what he’s doing and demand accountability at news conferences that happen a lot more often than annual stockholder meetings.
Tillerson’s State Department failed to hold a briefing for the first six-and-a-half weeks of the administration — an unprecedented hiatus from the daily, on-camera briefings by a spokesman that have been broadcast on foreign news around the globe for decades.
The State Department prods other countries to embrace freedom and democracy, but what kind of a message does it send to repressive leaders in China and Russia when Tillerson doesn’t accord access to his own press? Not only does that hypocrisy undermine our message, it lets our adversaries shape the narrative.
Tillerson seems not to understand that the relationship between public officials and members of the media can be at once symbiotic, adversarial and respectful. Journalists seek to report the truth and hold public servants accountable, while political figures — President Trump very much included – seek to use the media to amplify their message. A constructive working relationship is preferable, but if Tillerson chooses to make it hard, the added difficulty in reporting will come at a cost – not to the press that Trump has so vilified, but to the public interest.
In this case, a crucial trip to Japan, South Korea and China — the first by the secretary since North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile — is happening without the benefit of reporting by a traveling press corps with decades of institutional knowledge covering foreign policy.
Those who flew commercially couldn’t get visas for China without the State Department’s assistance and won’t be able to keep up with Tillerson’s itinerary or talk to aides between meetings. After saying there was no room, Tillerson invited one White House reporter who wrote a flattering piece on him for Independent Journal Review, a conservative-leaning website started by former Republican aides.
Maybe the real story is that Trump and Tillerson fear criticism from independent media and career diplomats and want to keep reporters away from officials who might share candid insights at the hotel bar. South Korean media reported Friday that Tillerson cut short meetings there citing "fatigue." Without a U.S. press pool on the scene, we don't know if there's something else to the story.
I worry an additional risk of Tillerson’s poor tone at the top is the trickle-down effect on government access for journalists covering all levels of government nationwide. If the Secretary of State himself is ducking reporters and getting away with it, who’s to say mayors, school board members, police commissioners and state legislators won’t suddenly decide to keep the press out of open meetings?
This is not about partisan politics. This is about the public’s right to know and the constitutionally protected role of the press to hold government accountable.