Pentagon punishes reporters over tough coverage

The Pentagon’s top spokesperson was ostensibly seeking to make peace with the media when she headed down to the building’s press bullpen about three weeks ago for an off-the-record discussion on how to improve relations.

But the meeting quickly grew combative, according to three people who were in the room. When reporters raised issues like vanishing access to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other top officials, Dana White pushed back by criticizing the accuracy of press corps members’ reporting.

She made clear, according to the reporters present, that she was watching what they wrote and put on-air — with the implication that there would be repercussions for stories she and her staff did not like.

White and the Pentagon’s press operation have already restricted access to briefings, interviews and travel with Mattis. But in recent weeks, several reporters said that they increasingly feel as though individual journalists are being retaliated against for stories they’ve written, losing yet more access. In one case this spring, officials pulled away a reporter’s plum opportunity to embed with U.S. troops overseas following a story they found too critical.

Another example involved the military-news outlet Defense One, which was left out of a media roundtable with the deputy secretary of defense earlier this month to help roll out President Donald Trump’s proposed Space Force. The slight came after a Defense One reporter got an early scoop on plans to set up the new branch, breaking the story before the Pentagon was ready for it to go public.

Kevin Baron, the executive editor of the site, confirmed that none of his reporters were invited to the briefing and said that White had conceded to him in an email that the snub was due to the initial story.

Baron said White apologized for the incident in the email, saying that she was not aware that Defense One had been singled out and that the decision was made unbeknownst to her office’s leadership. The briefing had been organized out of the deputy secretary of defense’s office.

“It seems Defense One was deliberately left out of a briefing in retaliation for our reporting,” Baron said, adding that he had been assured that “we would be included to all future, relevant briefings.”

Baron said he was pleased with how the situation was resolved and that White addressed it with him promptly.

White declined to comment, other than to offer a statement through Pentagon spokesman Charles Summers: “We are guided by the principles of information and committed to ensuring the accessibility of timely and accurate information to the media, the Congress and the American people. And we prioritize diversity of reporting during engagements and travel with Secretary Mattis and all of our senior leaders in the Department of Defense.”

After initially declining to comment further, Summers called back to more forcefully deny any retaliation against reporters, though he said he had not seen the email Baron said White sent him and could not address it.

“There is no retaliation,” Summers said, adding that while some reporters might feel they are invited on fewer foreign trips with Mattis than they were in previous administrations, that was because the department was seeking to include more “regional media and bring non-traditional media.”

“The notion that someone doesn’t have access or someone is shut out, that’s absolutely not accurate,” Summers added.

Still, Pentagon reporters say that the sorts of tactics they’re noticing, coupled with eroding access to top Defense Department officials, make it increasingly difficult to provide information to Americans about the activities of the Defense Department, a huge sector of the Trump administration that controls billions of dollars in spending and oversees U.S. troops at home and abroad.

“There is a climate of punitiveness here if you don’t write what they like,” one reporter said.

Another reporter said: “It’s not unusual for an administration to monitor what reporters are doing and reporters produce. What’s unusual now is it’s being used to evaluate whether we’ll be included in things or invited to things. … It’s never been so overt.”

White, a political appointee who previously worked for The Heritage Foundation and in Republican politics, has also been accused of retaliating against her own staff: On Tuesday, CNN broke the news that she is being investigated by the Defense Department inspector general for allegedly using staff members to ru

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *