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Rex Tillerson’s Conspicuous Media Blackout

Rex Tillerson in Korea
Rex Tillerson's Conspicuous Media Blackout

Rex Tillerson is proving to be a difficult official to follow, at least for the media. Unfortunately, it’s not likely he’ll be reprimanded for that by Trump.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson does not like to, or is at least instructed not to, answer questions from the press.  A promo that’s been circulating on MSNBC confirmed this when it depicted NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell’s attempt to talk to Mr. Tillerson during his meet and greet with the Foreign Minister of the Ukraine.  In the segment, Mitchell is banished from the room, and an overwhelming sense of defeat follows her exit.  Yet when Mr. Tillerson chose to share what’s on his mind, it was apparently with only one reporter at the Independent Journal Review (IJR) on his tour of South Korea, Japan and China.  And when places like Politico, The LA Times, Business Insider and The Washington Post cited IJR as a primary source in most of their reporting, it was clear that media access would be carefully guarded.  So why did only one journalist, Erin McPike, get a plane ticket?  In this article I have supplied direct excerpts from the transcript provided by IRJ and the conversation between McPike and Tillerson to address this question.

McPike’s interview probed Tillerson on key points even though the transcript featured some soft questions where Mr. Tillerson might have had an opportunity to hedge his responses using a more diplomatic tone.  McPike  directly addressed the absence of a press pool, other than her, by asking:  “Are you concerned about the message that you might be sending China by not taking a traveling press pool with you into China, which restricts press access?” The Secretary responded with: “Look, it’s driven by a couple of things. Primarily it’s driven — believe it or not, you won’t believe it — we’re trying to save money. I mean, quite frankly, we’re saving a lot of money by using this aircraft, which also flies faster, allows me to be more efficient.”  But in a Business Insider article by Sonam Sheth, he pointed out another answer that Mr. Tillerson provided to McPike that described his attitude toward media access, which was: “I don’t know that I’ll do a lot of that. I’m just not … that’s not the way I tend to work” and “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.”  These two inconsistent answers might suggest Mr. Tillerson is either trying to conceal his reasons or doesn’t genuinely care enough to be more transparent.

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In an op-ed, The Los Angeles Times Michael Finnegan also attempted to answer this question and explained that:  “the absence of any seasoned diplomatic correspondents from nonpartisan news outlets means that Tillerson, a former CEO of Exxon, will be less likely to face questions of substance about Turmp’s foreign policy.”  But this wasn’t just denying the run-of-the-mill lefty antagonists a ticket to ride, it excluded opportunities for reporters with expertise in Asian affairs or European journalists that seek more global transparency.  Perhaps, this represents President Donald Trump’s intense desire to restrict what his staff, cabinet members, or appointees, say to the media?  Or could it be the seasoned professionalism of a former energy industry leader knowing how to keep a low profile?  With so much practice dodging inquiries about environmental damage fossil fuel production causes, a willingness to never stray from the side of a spokesperson is long ingrained behavior.

McPike then asked what the next step might be in order to manage the situation with North Korea:  “Well, the first steps are the UN sanctions. There are broader sanctions that we can consider. I think that there are additional actions that the UN, that we can consider.  There are broader participation by other countries in putting pressure on North Korea.  So, this is a staged approach in which we want to give the North Korean government time to understand what’s happening, time to make decisions. We’re not … it’s not our objective to force them into some brash action.”  As he declared that “nothing is off the table” because twenty years of diplomacy and “the policy of strategic patience has ended,” it was clear that Trump’s no nonsense foreign policy driven by protectionist motivations was not merely campaign blustering.

In the same week, Trump’s claims that the C.I.A leaked information about his campaign’s ties to Russian diplomats, and that former President Obama ‘wiretapped’ his New York City residence, points to either a disturbing degree of paranoia or an ingenious way to regulate the flow of hot air from the media’s megaphone.  Positioning the press as ‘the opposition party’ was a wise move for such a volatile and unpredictable leader as Trump.  Oddly, the Trump cabinet doesn’t attempt to administer propaganda by crafting their own unique message that stands out.  Instead it works by denying the version of a leftist reality that will not accommodate their truth.  The Trump Administration’s persuasive ability is derived from an angry skepticism of its supporters that’s been absorbed by the Republican majority in the House.  The Russian ties between President Donald Trump and his cohorts are exposed.  It is not a stretch to assume that Rex Tillerson, a former head of Exxon, was chosen to improve business relations or secure a deal for natural resources.  Since the House and Senate Intelligence Committee hearings with James Comey, it was revealed that Vladimir Putin was resentful of Hillary Clinton and attempted to meddle with the 2016 Presidential campaign to ensure she didn’t win.  It was also disclosed that Putin would prefer a ‘much more business friendly’ U.S. President, especially one that would release the sanctions that President Obama put place.

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The foundations of media research come in handy here.  According to Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton’s research in the 1940’s, the United States might have reached a point of Propaganditis.  This is when there is such a wide and petulant distrust, it is virtually impossible to sway people with competing values, especially those with any measure of sentimentality.  This is why the logic of White House Budget guru Mick Mulvaney’s explanation that the possibility of twenty million people losing health care pales in comparison to how much it’s costing people.  This is also what justifies the calloused logic that since spending money to feed kids is not achieving the desired effect of helping them ‘to perform better in school,’ it means it’s a program ‘that’s just not working.’

In lieu of any appeal to pathos, a “propaganda of facts” is much more effective. These are ‘specifically selected factual’ or “technical information that is devoid of emotion aims at influencing opinions and behaviors about a chosen controversial issue.  Detailed circumstantial facts are very comforting when people do not have the time or capacity to understanding the trends and the forces behind them, yet they sense how closely these are bound up with their lives.” In other words, the Trump Administration uses matter of fact responses to provide comfort to his supporters in hopes of diminishing and assuaging their intense fear of an uncertain future.

Feature image: (cc) Shashi Bellamkonda www.shashi.co ift.tt/2mTLkn5

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Jason Smith
About Jason Smith 4 Articles
Jason K. Smith, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Communications & Media Arts at Bethany College in Bethany West Virginia and Vice President of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Chapter.

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