The U.S. State Department on Monday issued a stinging rebuke of establishment media figures who attacked the Trump administration and falsely claimed the U.S. government was acting like the Communist regime in Beijing for not taking questions during the briefing about former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s book.
The representatives from the media outlets who did this—from Reuters to Bloomberg—broke longstanding precedent of keeping State Department policy briefings on topic by attempting to ask unrelated questions. The Bloomberg reporter actually accused the State Department of acting like the Chinese Communist Party by not taking questions on Bolton’s book during the call.
Morgan Ortagus, the State Department spokeswoman, after the incident wrote a stinging letter to AFP’s Shaun Tendon, the head of the association of reporters who cover the State Department, explaining that she had never seen anything like this before. Ortagus provided that letter to Breitbart News exclusively ahead of its public release:
“I am writing due to an incident that happened on one of our important State Department briefings,” Ortagus wrote to Tendon. “Access to the press and communicating our policies is the most important thing that I do in my role as Spokesperson. Today, we decided to roll out an incredibly important policy on designating more Chinese propaganda outlets as foreign missions. I always fight to have the State Department bullpen briefed first, especially on incredibly complicated stories like this one, as no one in town is more experienced than all of you in covering foreign policy. Unfortunately, instead of focusing on this important policy, reporters decided to ask questions, make comments, and tweet about a newly published book, as opposed to keeping the briefing on topic. Further, some compared the simple request to stay on topic, to the actions of the Chinese Communist Party. Beyond being inappropriate, these off topic questions, comments, and tweets feign ignorance for reporters who I know are extremely experienced in covering Asia, and certainly understand what life is like while living in China and covering the CCP. In an open exchange of ideas, one may certainly debate the correctness of our actions today, to designate CCP-backed propaganda outlets as foreign missions. In our policy focused briefings, I obtain the most senior State Dept officials possible, to give our bullpen access to ask questions regarding these highly important policy rollouts. Questions unrelated to the briefings can be asked at any time through emails and phone calls, or in the weekly briefings with the Secretary. I have directed my entire press team in the building to be responsive to reporters, to meet deadlines, to allow for briefings, and to exude professionalism in our interactions.”
The actions from these establishment media figures distracted from the U.S. effort to fight actual repression of free media by a dictatorial regime, because on the call the State Department officials were announcing the U.S. was taking new and unprecedented actions against Chinese state-backed propaganda outlets.
The on-the-record briefing with the so-called “bullpen” of reporters who cover the State Department—similar to the White House press corps, but for the State Department—was conducted with Ortagus, the Department’s spokeswoman, and Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David R. Stilwell. Ortagus and Stilwell made the explosive announcement during the call that the U.S. government was designating four separate Chinese Communist Party controlled media outlets as “foreign missions,” meaning that the United States will now consider them official representatives of the Chinese government and not independent media outlets.
“We are designating the U.S. operation of four additional Chinese propaganda outlets as foreign missions,” Ortagus said. “This follows our original designation announcement back in February. These entities are not independent news organizations. They are effectively controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, CCP, also known as propaganda outlets. Furthermore, we hope our action will increase transparency on the PRC’s obsessive control of information and news not just among their state-owned propaganda outlets, but also amongst legitimate journalists and news gatherings in China.”
Stilwell, in his remarks, later revealed the four outlets that the U.S. government was zoning in on: China Central Television (CCTV), China News Service (CNS), People’s Daily, and the Global Times.
“I would want to stress here that the Communist Party does not just exercise operational control over these propaganda entities but it has full editorial control over their content,” Stilwell said. “This foreign mission designation is an obvious step in increasing the transparency of these and other PRC government propaganda activities in the United States. This determination is not intended to reduce or constrain journalistic activity by foreign media outlets. Again, these four entities are not media but propaganda outlets.”
The United States taking serious actions against Chinese state media is a significant policy move, and one that is entirely newsworthy. In fact, in a recent interview with Breitbart News, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo actually ripped into Chinese state media—foreshadowing this policy move—laying out how the U.S. views the government-controlled media attacks from Chinese state media as a show of “weakness.”
“I think this shows that the Chinese Communist Party understands the risk that they’ve put on top of their own nation,” Pompeo said of Chinese state media. “Those attacks demonstrate weakness, not resolve, by the Chinese Communist Party. You and I are both old enough to remember how Communist regimes, how autocracies behave. Once they know they have done things that are wrong, they strike out. They try to blame others. I think that’s what you’re seeing. They also try to maneuver around the world through disinformation. We have been clear—President Trump, myself, the State Department—have been clear about making sure that everyone understands the facts surrounding the Chinese Communist Party.”
While most of the U.S. media figures on the press call with the State Department on Monday focused on the topic of the call—the huge news of the U.S. escalating against China on state-run media–a couple of those on the call attempted to use the forum in an unprecedented way to further the establishment media’s anti-Trump agenda.
During the question-and-answer session after the announcement, things quickly went off the rails because of a handful of establishment media figures attempted to hijack the briefing on the administration’s anti-China actions to ask about Bolton. A transcript of the call obtained by Breitbart News demonstrates that the first one who tried to do so was David Brunnstrom from Reuters.
Brunnstrom during the call said, “I was wondering, slightly changing the subject to former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s book—“
At that point, Ortagus cut him off. “Hey, David, David, that’s not what this call’s about. If you would like to ask about our new policy action today, we’re more than happy to take the question. If not, I can move on in the queue,” Ortagus said.
“Well, I just wanted to ask whether any allies in the region have been in touch with— the assistant secretary on this issue for clarification,” Brunnstrom continued.
Ortagus ended that and did not answer it, and said, “AT&T, we can mute that line.”
Then, later in the call, Bloomberg’s Nick Wadhams insinuated that Ortagus keeping the briefing focused on the topic at hand—as is tradition—was somehow similar to the Chinese Communist Party exercising complete editorial control over the state-backed Chinese media outlets the U.S. was taking actions against.
“Can I also get you to comment on the message you think it sends to foreign journalists and other people who would be listening to this call that you guys are not willing to take questions on the John Bolton book when you’re also talking about a message of ensuring freedom of the press in the United States?” Wadhams asked Stilwell as the second part of a two-part question.
Stillwell just responded to the first part, and Ortagus continued the rest of the call before she addressed the insinuation that Wadhams made—which was that the United States government was somehow exercising editorial control over news organizations like the Chinese Communist Party does.
But at the end of the call Ortagus ripped Wadhams for his claims. “Before I end the call, I do think it’s – I’m going to have to address what I consider a pretty offensive question by Nick Wadhams,” Ortagus said. “We strive every day to give all of you multiple briefings a day. The Secretary goes to the podium once a week and we take as many questions as we can. We try to be very quick over email in responding to what all of you need. And so if there’s any question about any books by any officials or anything you may have, we’re – have proven to be available 24/7 to all of you and we will always answer them. We like to focus these policy briefings on the policy, but any insinuation that we haven’t made ourselves available or responsive to your questions – Nick’s insinuation is offensive and I just would like to go on the record that that’s totally inaccurate.”
Of course, Ortagus is correct and Wadhams’ insinuation is factually inaccurate and without merit. Unlike the Chinese Communist Party, the U.S. government is not dictating the editorial content of any of these media outlets on this call–including his or any of the others present.
After the call was over, though, several in the media including USA Today’s Deirdre Shesgreen, CBS News’s Christina Ruffini, Politico’s Max Cohen, and NPR’s Michele Kelemen pushed out attacks against Ortagus for doing what she did during the call.
A/S David Stilwell: “Secretary of State Pompeo has made clear that mature, responsible countries understand that a free press is essential, which is while I’m talking to you all.”
ON THE SAME CALL, A REPORTERS LINE WAS MUTED WHEN HE TRIED TO ASK A Q RELATED TO THE BOLTON BOOK. https://t.co/EMADsM1f8k
— Christina Ruffini (@EenaRuffini) June 22, 2020
“OK, AT&T, we can mute that line,” a spox said when a reporter asked about the diplo fallout of Bolton’s book. The teleconference was about designating China Central Television, China News Service, the People’s Daily & the Global Times as foreign missions and propaganda outlets. https://t.co/gtPtWlWPqW
— Michele Kelemen (@michelekelemen) June 22, 2020
That prompted Ortagus to write her letter to Tandon, the head of the State Department correspondents’ association. That letter, again provided exclusively to Breitbart News ahead of its public release, continues by noting that Ortagus has never experienced anything like this in her nearly two years as State Department spokeswoman.
“In the year and a half that I have been Spokesperson, I have never experienced the issues that we experienced today, both during and especially after the call,” she wrote. “Despite the constant churn and hostility in Washington, we have managed to keep our daily briefings non-political and focused on foreign policy at State. In this era of combativeness, I am proud that we have been able to maintain professionalism in our briefings. Last week we held five new briefings for a total of 181 briefings since September 22, 2019, an average of almost one briefing per every workday for 39 weeks in a row, despite a global pandemic! Unfortunately, today’s actions (not only during the call, but again afterwards) reinforce the highly political environment that I strove to avoid in our foreign policy briefings. It is my hope that we can eventually go back to important policy briefings at State, focused on foreign affairs, at some point in the future.”