The State Department barred the department’s press corps from a briefing call with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on March 18, 2019, stating that only “faith-based media” were permitted to participate. The department also took the unusual step of refusing to release a full transcript or a list of attendees.
The phone briefing was to discuss “international religious freedom” ahead of the secretary’s five-day trip to Beirut, Jerusalem, and Kuwait City. CNN reported that one member of the department’s press corps was invited, but was un-invited after RSVPing. CNN also attempted to RSVP to the call, but received no reply from the department.
Despite repeated inquiries and complaints from members of the press corps, The State Department announced that it would not provide a transcript of the call, a list of the faith-based media outlets allowed to participate, the criteria used to determine which outlets would be invited nor answer if the media outlets invited included a range of faiths.
Religion News Service reported that it was invited to participate in the call, though it stated that the publication “is not a faith-based media organization, but rather a secular news service that covers religion, spirituality and ethics.”
RNS also included a list of publications that asked questions during the briefing call: the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Algemeiner (which covers Jewish and Israel news), World Magazine (which publicizes its content as “reporting the news from a Christian worldview”), America Magazine (“the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture”) and The Leaven, the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. CNN reported that a reporter with EWTN Global Catholic Television said the outlet was not originally invited but asked permission to participate.
In a statement sent to CNN, a State Department spokesperson said that while some press engagements, including department press briefings, teleconferences, briefings and sprays are open to any interested domestic or international press, that is not always the case. “Other engagements are more targeted or designed for topic, region, or audience-specific media. This has always been the case,” they said.
Former State Department spokesperson John Kirby, now a global affairs analyst for CNN, told the outlet that 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.”
Kirby also tweeted in response to news that no transcript of the briefing would be released. “This is absolutely not OK. Cabinet officials are public servants. They work for us. When they speak to reporters on the record everything they say—in its entirety—needs to be released at the earliest appropriate time,” he wrote.
This is absolutely not OK. Cabinet officials are public servants. They work for us. When they speak to reporters on the record everything they say — in its entirety — needs to be released at the earliest appropriate time. That’s proper accountability. That’s what we deserve. https://t.co/OBJht2BaAK— John Kirby (@johnfkirby63) March 19, 2019
Standard norms are that when it concerns Cabinet-level officials like Pompeo, the department is expected to provide a transcript of the meeting remarks and a list of who attended to any interested journalist.