On March 18 the Independent Journal Review published an interview with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his Asia visit. It might have ranked as a rather ordinary check-in with America’s top diplomat, except for the fact that he refused to allow members of the press, aside from the IJR’s Erin McPike, to travel with him.
In so doing, and under McPike’s questioning, Tillerson revealed exactly the kind of backwards thinking about open government that is distressingly common, from the highest American offices down to City Hall. Here’s a snippet from the portion of the interview where McPike pressed the secretary to explain his refusal to allow the usual press contingent to tag along at their own expense:
IJR: Right so your answer is you don’t intend to change this model for your next trip.
Tillerson: It’s gonna be trip dependent. It doesn’t mean we won’t, but we’re gonna look at every trip in terms of what my needs are. Look my … First and foremost is what is my mission and why am I going? How can I best accomplish that mission? What’s the most effective way for me to do that? I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it. 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.
“I personally don’t need it.” The secretary has it precisely backwards. It’s not about him needing acess to the public. It’s about the public needing access to him. The press does not exist to be his megaphone. It exists to give his fellow countrymen the information they need to monitor the performance of their government.
Look, no one is making the case that the press should follow Tillerson into every meeting or eavesdrop on sensitive discussions. By definition, diplomacy is an art practiced partly in public and largely behind closed doors.
Democracy is difficult and inconvenient, and blessedly so. The default setting is: It’s public unless the law compels it to be private. It can be a royal pain. It is supposed to be a royal pain to anyone with designs on tyranny. From Tillerson down to the dog catcher, however, government officials wrongly apply the inverse default: It’s private unless the law compels me to make it public. That’s more convenient, but ours is not a government of convenience. It is supposed to be a government of the People.