US State Dept tests new media rules as Tillerson heads solo to Asia

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (C) arrives at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo on March 15, 2017

The US State Department said Wednesday that it is testing new media coverage rules as its boss Rex Tillerson traveled to Asia with no accredited reporters in tow -- a break with 50 years of tradition.

The former ExxonMobil CEO has kept a very low profile since taking up his position on February 2, speaking in public only three times.

He has not held a single news conference and never answers questions that reporters shout out when he is posing for photo ops with foreign counterparts.

Now Tillerson has angered US and foreign correspondents accredited to cover the State Department by traveling to Asia on Tuesday with just one journalist -- from a conservative publication called the Independent Journal Review.

That reporter is not a member of the group of major US and international media accredited to cover the department in charge of US diplomacy around the world.

Those 15-odd reporters normally travel on the same Air Force Boeing jetliner made available for the secretary of state, with each news outlet paying its reporter's way for a seat on the aircraft.

Asked why Tillerson is breaking with tradition as he traveled to Japan, South Korea and China from March 15-19, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said: "This is a chance, or an opportunity at the beginning of a new administration, to look at outside-the-box -- if I could say that -- approaches to how we cover or how we handle coverage of the secretary."

"It was decided to take a journalist who was not, or from an outlet that doesn't normally travel with the secretary, as part of an effort to include a broader representation of the US media," added Toner, who also served under former president Barack Obama.

Toner insisted the accredited press is not being ostracized and that the 20 or so reporters who traveled to Asia on their own to follow Tillerson would have access to him.

But Toner would not say if the novel arrangement would be repeated or whether the accredited press would again be allowed to travel with the top US diplomat the next time he travels abroad.

The traditional practice has been in place since the late 1960s in the interests of transparency and providing the public with important news.

The State Department Correspondents' Association said it was disappointed at how the latest trip was arranged and expressed hope the department would address its concerns soon.