Secrecy surrounding briefing for 'faith-based media' raises eyebrows

Image: Spokesperson Heather Nauert while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dialogues with reporters in his plane while flying from Panama to Mexico
Spokesperson Heather Nauert (L) speaks as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dialogues with reporters in his plane while flying from Panama to Mexico, October 18, 2018. 

At face value, it may not seem especially notable that that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a briefing yesterday for "faith-based media," ostensibly to discuss issues related to international religious freedom. What's curious, however, is the apparent secrecy surrounding the briefing.

For example, the State Department said no transcript of the briefing would be available to the public, which is unusual. The State Department also wouldn't say who participated in the briefing.

Major independent news organizations that asked to be part of the briefing were reportedly excluded -- the invitations were limited exclusively to "faith-based media."

CNN spoke to a former State Department spokesperson, who found all of this difficult to defend.

Former State Department spokesperson John Kirby, who is a CNN Global Affairs analyst, said "it is typical practice that any on the record interview in which a Cabinet official participates is transcribed and published at the earliest appropriate opportunity.""These officials are public servants. What they say -- in its entirety -- is inherently of public interest. It's inappropriate and irresponsible not to observe that obligation," he told CNN.Kirby said he has "certainly seen times when particular journalists or columnists have been targeted for inclusion on given topics." However, "to exclude beat reporters from something as universally relevant as religious freedom in the Middle East strikes me as not only self-defeating but incredibly small-minded," he said."It's perfectly fine to ensure faith-based media have a seat at such a table. But it's PR malpractice to cut off access to the broader press corps. I wish I could say I expected more from this crowd," Kirby said.

MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell added yesterday that she couldn't recall a similar instance in which religion was used as "a test" for journalists who wanted to take part in an official State Department briefing.

It's worth emphasizing that there were no logistical concerns that required strict limits: this was a briefing Pompeo conducted over the phone. In other words, this wasn't a situation in which there are only so many seats in a briefing room, so some journalists had to be left out for practical reasons.

Rather, the State Department made a choice about limiting the kinds of journalists who could join the briefing -- and the department then kept the details of what was said at the briefing under wraps.