On Monday, I got an email inviting me to join an “on-the-record conference call” with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The message, sent to my Christian Chronicle address, indicated that Pompeo would discuss international religious freedom ahead of his trip to Jerusalem and the Middle East and take questions from call participants.
Ordinarily, I might have RSVP’d and listened to what Pompeo had to say.
But I’m still recovering (read: exhausted and taking a few days off) after my own recent travel to Israel. So I decided I’d rely on other journalists’ news coverage of the call and perhaps check out the transcript later.
Little did I know that the exclusivity of the invitation itself would make headlines.
On Monday, the State Department held a briefing call for only faith-based media to discuss international press freedom with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In response to inquiries from journalists who were not permitted to join the briefing, the Department declined to provide a transcript of the call, a list of media outlets who were allowed to participate or the criteria used to determine which media outlets were invited.
“The decision to bar reporters from attending a press briefing held only for ‘faith-based’ media on international religious freedom and to withhold the transcript of the discussion raises serious questions about the State Department’s understanding of — and commitment to — a free press,” said Jenn Topper, spokesperson for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“As a representative of the United States, Secretary Pompeo is subject to public oversight, and with no transcript of this briefing, no list of attendees, and no pool report, the broader press and the public are left entirely in the dark about who participated, what was said, and the implications of this conversation ahead of the Secretary’s trip to the Middle East.
“We urge the State Department to immediately release the transcript of this call, and ensure that future briefings — especially those on issues of widespread public interest — are open to the State Department press corps and other interested journalists.”
CNN reported that it asked to be included in the call but received no reply.
Religion News Service’s Emily McFarlan Miller was a part of the call and reported on what Pompeo said:
(RNS) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended his department’s decision to drop the word “occupation” from its description of the Golan Heights and Palestinian territories and said people of all faiths will have “something to say” about the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan the White House is expected to announce after Israel’s elections in two weeks.
Pompeo’s remarks came Monday (March 18) during a phone briefing with a small group of media outlets as he was leaving for a five-day trip to Beirut, Jerusalem and Kuwait City.
The secretary of state said his trip will include “different missions, different places.”
But in each place, Pompeo said the agenda will be “very focused on not only the security aspects of the relationship between our countries and the economic aspect but also the challenges we face from radical Islamic terrorism in the region and working to promote religious tolerance in each of those places as well.”
However, RNS editor-in-chief Bob Smietana tweeted that his news organization isn’t “faith-based” although it covers religion and said others on the call didn’t know about the restrictions:
What outlets were on the call?
While it was not clear which outlets were part of the call, questions were asked by Religion News Service, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Algemeiner, World Magazine and The Leaven, the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. America Magazine also participated in the call. Participants were not told that the call was limited to faith-based media.
Some other relevant tweets related to the call:
I don’t follow Pompeo or the State Department closely enough to understand all the dynamics at play here.
As a member of the “so-called ‘faith-based media’” — as NBC’s Andrea Mitchell referred to us — I welcome the opportunity to hear directly from important national leaders. Our readers (135,000 print subscribers in the Chronicle’s case) certainly are interested in matters such as international religious freedom.
At the same time, I’m not sure I understand why — even if Pompeo wanted to limit this specific interview to religion writers — a transcript of an on-the-record conference call wouldn’t be made available, particularly if that is the State Department’s standard practice.
Thoughts? Questions? By all means, comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion.