Conservative website only media on Tillerson plane to Asia

SEOUL (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson flew to Asia accompanied by only one journalist on his aircraft, a reporter from a website founded by former Republican political operatives, in a departure from decades of practice.

Tillerson, who became the top U.S. diplomat under Republican President Donald Trump in February, traveled to Mexico and Germany last month with a small contingent of journalists, including a “pool” reporter who informed colleagues of Tillerson’s statements or actions.

The journalist on Tillerson’s plane that arrived in Tokyo on Wednesday, Erin McPike of the Independent Journal Review (IJR), was not acting as a pool reporter.

State Department Acting Spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement that there was only one seat available on Tillerson’s plane for media. The department had previously told reporters covering Tillerson’s trip to South Korea, Japan, and China that he would not be taking reporters on his plane and that they would have to fly commercially, breaking with decades of precedent stretching back to Henry Kissinger.

“It was decided to take a journalist from an outlet that doesn’t normally travel with the Secretary of State, as part of an effort to include a broader representation of U.S. media,” Toner said. “We will also make every effort to include a contingent of media on the Secretary’s plane going forward.”

The State Department originally said that Tillerson could not accommodate the usual contingent of reporters because of space constraints. It also said the decision to travel without reporters was intended to cut costs.

News organizations pay the U.S. government for the cost of their travel. The journalists who reported Tillerson’s landing in Tokyo on Wednesday evening traveled there on commercial flights. Depending on the number of staff Tillerson chose to take to Asia, the Boeing 737 he traveled on could likely have accommodated more than one reporter.

The conservative-leaning IJR said in a statement late on Tuesday that the State Department last week offered the seat on Tillerson’s plane.

McPike is a White House correspondent for IJR, and previously reported for CNN, Real Clear Politics, NBC News, and National Journal, according to IJR’s website when she joined in February. She was also briefly part of the team that covered the 2016 election campaign for Reuters.

“We don’t take this opportunity lightly and recognize the controversy surrounding press access for the trip,” IJR founder and chief executive Alex Skatell said in a statement. In 2014, Skatell told The New York Times he wanted to start a site after observing a gap in reaching “a more mainstream center-right audience.”

The State Department Correspondents’ Association said in a statement that it was “disappointed” Tillerson chose to travel to Asia without a full contingent of media “or even a pool reporter” and called for access to Tillerson equal to that given by the reporter on the plane during his trip to Asia.

Tillerson, a former chief executive with the Exxon Mobil oil company, faces a tough first trip to Asia seeking to reassure nervous allies facing North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threat and press China to do more on perhaps the most serious security challenge confronting Trump.

For decades, secretaries of state have nearly always invited media to travel with them. In rare cases, particularly late in a secretary’s tenure, some news outlets have declined, such as former Secretary John Kerry’s December 2016 trip to Saudi Arabia.

Republican secretaries of state Alexander Haig, George Shultz, James Baker, and Condoleezza Rice routinely took 10 or more journalists on their overseas trips, even to war zones.

Before founding IJR, Skatell worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and for the Republican Governors Association, according to his LinkedIn profile. Another founder, Phil Musser, was once executive director of the Republican Governors Association and worked in the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the administration of George W. Bush.

Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Seoul; Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Sam Holmes and Grant McCool