There’s arguably no reason this ever should have gone through the White House to begin with. I suppose years ago, when distribution was harder, one could plausibly make an argument for the White House distributing the pool report because it had a mechanism already in place for just that distribution, but there’s certainly no reason for it now. I’m just now relishing the irony that the White House press corps is having to experiment with a way to distribute news to a handful of fellow reporters. And, they think the GOP is technologically behind.
Note well, however, that it is the most transparent administration in history precipitating this change after years of unmolested pool reporting because of its meddling in pool reports it’s supposed to distribute. It looks like they’re going to be using this thing called an e-mail distribution list of a Google group to escape the think-skinned tyranny of this White House:
White House journalists are creating an alternative system for distributing their media “pool” reports in response to the Obama administration’s involvement in approving and disapproving certain content in official reports.
A small group of reporters initiated an online forum this month in which they shared “pool” information among themselves, without White House involvement. The forum was set up by the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), which negotiates with the White House’s press staff over access for journalists.
Pool reports — those summaries of the president’s public appearances that go to the news media at large and are used in countless news stories — are filed by a rotating group of journalists whose work is intended to be free of content changes by the White House.
The pool journalists, however, must submit their reports to the White House press office, which distributes them via e-mail to hundreds of news organizations and others. The White House maintains the list of recipients.
The Washington Post did a long piece on this new phenomenon— which would be covered more than Ebola and mean the imminent fall of the Republic had Bush done it but I digress— recently, and the shocking thing (I know, I shouldn’t be shocked) is how many reporters went along with the White House’s demands. I mean, this kind of thing should be anathema to press, a no-brainer snit-fit moment, and totally justified. And, yet in this story of numerous moments of bullying, it seems only the Huffington Post‘s Jennifer Bendery successfully resisted. Good for her.
Here’s the right way:
One such episode occurred this summer when Jennifer Bendery, a reporter with the Huffington Post, included in her pool story the fact that a White House intern had fainted at the end of the daily press briefing. Earnest objected, according to Bendery, saying the intern would be “smeared” by the story. Bendery replied that she hadn’t identified the young woman by name and had added new information by reporting on her recovery. But Earnest insisted this was out of bounds.
After Bendery’s editor protested that the White House was obstructing the reporter, Earnest backed down, and her account was distributed. But the episode left Bendery a little bruised. “I don’t know why the White House tries to be an editor or middleman,” she said. “They’re just supposed to hit ‘forward’ ” to send the pool reports on their way.
And, here’s the wrong way:
When Anita Kumar of the McClatchy newspaper chain covered Obama’s appearance on “The Tonight Show” for the press pool last year, she wrote a detailed account of the taped program. Kumar thought her story would be sent to pool recipients hours before the show aired. Instead, White House press staffers objected to the length of her file, saying it violated an agreement with the program’s producers to limit advance publicity. They told Kumar to pare down her account before they would distribute it.
Kumar reluctantly complied, but the request made her uneasy. “The worry is that when you send in a pool report, the White House is reading it and approving it,” she said.
Other journalists tell similar tales about White House objections.
As the pool reporter on a presidential trip to California in mid-2012, Todd Gillman of the Dallas Morning News included a colorful scene in his pool file: Obama walking back to the press section of Air Force One bearing a dessert with a lighted candle to honor a veteran reporter who was making her final presidential trip. Gillman added the seemingly innocuous detail that Obama asked the honoree to blow out the candle and make a wish, “preferably one that had something to do with the number 270,” the minimum number of electoral college votes the president needed to win reelection.
A press aide, whom Gillman declined to identify, asserted that the details of this scene were off the record and refused to distribute Gillman’s account. Only after Gillman appealed to then-press secretary Jay Carney was the report finally sent — a day after the fact and long after reporters’ deadlines had passed.
On another occasion, in 2011, Carney himself objected to a pool report that included a mention of first lady Michelle Obama working out at a hotel gym during a presidential trip to Asia. Carney told the pool reporter, David Nakamura of The Washington Post, that the workout was part of the first lady’s personal time and therefore off limits to reporters. Nakamura disagreed but reluctantly deleted the line to ensure that his report would be sent.
During the same trip, then-deputy press secretary Josh Earnest flagged another of Nakamura’s reports. This one contained a comment juxtaposing a speech Obama had given two days earlier lauding freedom of the press with the administration’s decision to limit access to presidential photo ops on the trip.
Earnest, who succeeded Carney as press secretary in May, considered Nakamura’s comparison unfair and asked him to take it out, according to Nakamura. After an argument, the reporter acquiesced.
This was always an ethically and professionally dicey arrangement, and I’m surprised the White House Press Corps Association didn’t make it an independent project years ago. The state will always eventually take a bit of power where you let it in, but let us always remember it was the Obama White House that succumbed so shamelessly to the temptation.