ON HER OWN

Erin McPike: Why I Broke With The Press Pack To Interview Tillerson

‘I didn’t know I was going to be maligned…as an enemy of the press corps,’ says Erin McPike of Independent Journalism Review, after her solo trip with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

“I knew there was gonna be some blowback. I didn’t know I was going to be maligned…as an enemy of the press corps,” Erin McPike told The Daily Beast after her dustup Tuesday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe with Associated Press White House correspondent Julie Pace.

McPike, who covers the White House for the conservative-leaning news site Independent Journalism Review, squared off with Pace, a board member of the White House Correspondents Association, over IJR’s decision to accept the lone reporter’s seat on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s small plane—and not to file pool reports to the rest of the traveling press corps—during the former ExxonMobil CEO’s just-completed trip to Asia.

At a time when beat reporters at the State Department had yet to get Tillerson to answer a single question after nearly two months in his Cabinet post, Pace criticized McPike and her organization for conducting two exclusive interviews with Tillerson, his first as secretary, and not sharing other details with her colleagues.

McPike’s and IJR’s handling of the situation—in which she provided a transcript of one of her interviews during the five-day trip but didn’t produce regular reports on Tillerson’s official activities for her colleagues—represented a stark departure from traditional practice, in which a journalist given special access on a government plane is considered to represent the entire press corps.

“I’ve known Julie for awhile,” McPike said. “I guess she did seem kind of irritated. I don’t know that I’m the person to take this out on.”

The debate on Morning Joe was launched when Mika Brzezinski asked McPike—a veteran of Real Clear Politics, NBC News and CNN before taking the IJR job—if she felt “bad” for taking advantage of the State Department’s offer of access while other journalists were left out in the cold, and had to fly commercial to Japan, South Korea and China in an effort to keep up with the secretary’s itinerary.

“Obviously, we support more press access,” McPike responded. “As a reporter I always fight for more access. And I would have liked other reporters to be there as well. I talked about this a number of times with mentors and the editor who I deal with every day. We spent a lot of time going back and forth about how we should deal with this. Should we file our own pool reports? We decided that wasn’t the right option. We did put a lot of thought into how we went about it.”

Pace fired back: “Can I ask why that was the right option? Because we face these questions at the White House all the time, where we get in situations where the White House is trying to limit access, keep certain news organizations out, and often we make the decision that we’re going to do the right thing for everybody instead of just for our own organization. So, why wasn’t it the right thing to do to send pool reports that everyone could have made use of?”

McPike, apparently taken aback, replied: “I was on the trip for five days. We were in three other countries. I can’t say it was necessarily the right decision, but it was the decision that we made.”

“Why did you make the decision?” Pace demanded.

“We made the decision because I was gonna have these interviews. I ended up having two interviews, split in two. I did talk to him again on the way home from Beijing, and I wanted to focus on a bigger story.”

Pace was clearly unimpressed. “Do you think it hurts the case for press access around the Secretary of State going forward, now that they know that one news organization is willing to take this special access and not stand with the rest of the press corps?”

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“Julie, I don’t know that that’s fair,” McPike retorted. “If you had the opportunity to get the first interview with the Secretary of State, don’t you think you would have” taken it?

“I think I absolutely would have,” Pace agreed, “but not if it was on the plane at the exclusion of other reporters.”

McPike argued, however, that any Washington bureau chief would have jumped at the chance to send a reporter on such an exclusive.

“Do you agree with that?” Joe Scarborough asked Pace.

“I think there’s a difference between an interview and then the traveling press corps that’s around. An interview is separate than being the only person to see the daily ins and outs of what the Secretary of State is doing, to know who he’s meeting with, to know what’s happening. That’s a different set of circumstance.”

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, another panelist in the Washington studio, suggested that the debate—“two reporters going at it”—was an example of the Trump administration’s divide-and-conquer strategy regarding the Fourth Estate.

Afterward, McPike told The Daily Beast that she and IJR editor in chief Alex Skatell “talked to a lot of people for several days and went back and forth about what to do.”

In the end, she said, the reasoning was, “Why waste your time on a bunch of half-assed pool reports when you’re going round the world for a few days? Nothing will be good. Focus on doing something decent…Sometimes you have to make a decision and go ahead with it.”