Nobody likes a micro-manager. Especially when that micro-manager is the government.
Here in the United States, we have this great thing called “the freedom of the press,” protected by our Constitution. But the White House doesn’t always seem to value that freedom above its own image. And since it is the primary distributor for some reports on the president’s activity, it takes advantage of that position to block certain content from being made public.
A group of “pool reporters” got tired of the White House throwing its weight around and demanding edits to their reports. So they came up with another way to share information that isn’t dependent on presidential press aides.
Here’s how the pool system works: instead of subjecting the president to a mob of journalists everywhere he goes, representative reporters for each event are chosen from a pool of regular White House press. The information they gather on the president’s appearances is then shared with news outlets, federal agencies, and congressional offices.
The White House plays an unusual role as the distributor of these pool reports, giving it the power to demand changes before sending them out.
Usually reports are distributed without an issue, but sometimes the president’s press aides choose to push back — and overwhelmingly, the White House wins. Pool journalists have two choices: make the changes that the administration wants and have the report sent right away, or appeal and have it approved after deadlines have passed. Needless to say, more often than not, the reporters back down so that their information will actually reach those who can make it known.
In response, the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) has set up an online forum to test its own distribution method as a possible alternative to sending reports through the White House. Using Google Groups, about ninety journalists from the 8,000-email White House list shared information on a recent presidential trip as well as logistical advisories for pool reporters. After an evaluation period, more journalists may be added to the group.
Unlike TV and radio broadcasters, print and online reporters are completely reliant on the White House distribution system for details about the president’s activities. An independent distribution system would get information out more quickly and increase confidence that the administration wasn’t tampering with reports.
The Washington Post listed some trivial examples for information in pool reports that the White House took issue with: the president offered a cupcake to a reporter and joked that when she blew out the candle, she might wish for his re-election. Michelle Obama used a hotel gym to work out—but that was on her personal time and thus off the record, according to press aides. More seriously, the Post says that a pool report was flagged for criticism that the president had failed to live up to his rhetoric: “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.” The line was eventually deleted.
“The White House has no right to touch a pool report,” says Tom DeFrank, contributing editor of National Journal, who has covered the White House for decades. “It’s none of their business. If they want to challenge something by putting out a statement of their own, that’s their right. It’s also their prerogative to jawbone a reporter, which often happens. But they have no right to alter a pool report unilaterally.”
Here’s how the Virginia Declaration of Rights (written in 1776 and a precursor to the First Amendment) describes a free society: “the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.”
The current administration might want to read our founding documents again.