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White House Reporters Debate New Pool Policy

We’ve heard a lot of reaction from White House reporters to the White House Correspondents Association’s decision to limit pool report access (first reported here on FishbowlDC). We’ve heard phrases like “really offensive” to “donnybrook” to “totally nuts” to “a shitstorm is a’comin’.” But to be fair: Many reporters also think the policy makes some sense.

Basically, here’s the gist of what the new policy means: You don’t pay, you don’t play. Namely, only those reporters whose news organizations have ponied up the money to accompany the president on domestic and foreign trips will receive the pool reports. This, of course, means that if you’re not rich enough to travel, your paper’s reporting will suffer. The big get bigger (NYT, WaPo, LAT, WSJ…) and so on…

Of course, from the big papers’ perspective, why should they shell out all that money (a recent trip to Russia, for instance, cost $23,000) so that reporters back in D.C. can sit on their duffs and reap all the rewards of others’ work and money (reporters are not allowed to keep anything out of their pool report which they will later use in their own story/coverage).

But other reporters say that, under this new policy, millions of readers around the country will be disenfranchised and unable to find out what their president is up to. As one reporter put it, “This comes down to, ‘Who does the president belong to?’ He belongs to all of us, not just the readers of rich newspapers.” (By way of comparison: The pool reports of presidential candidates only go to those who are on the bus travelling with the candidate). “With great responsibility comes great obligation.”

As former WHCA Prez Ken Herman (who opposes the idea…as did another former WHCA Prez Ron Hutcheson) explained, the logic in so doing was this:

In a nutshell, the change (highlighted by end of distribution of pool reports to folks not on a trip) came about because of concerns expressed by the large papers that make all the trips (and fewer and fewer papers are doing the trips). They argue that it is unfair to make them share information from trips that have become increasingly expensive as fewer papers travel. It also requires them to take more pool turns that take time away from their own work.

Other arguments against the policy, being floated…

-Is this the beginning of a slippery slope argument? If you start cutting off access here, will the next step involve, say, telling certain reporters who hardly ever show up at the White House that they cannot ask the president a question during a presser?

-Pool reports become a valuable part of the public, historical record. Under this policy, will they disappear?

Current WHCA Prez Ann Compton is eager to hear reporters’ opinions and perhaps a resolution/compromise can and will be reached.

What’s interesting is that, the more you think about this issue, the more it hammers home the fact that journalism hardly ever operates like a business (which would sometimes explains the declining profits). Folks arguing against this policy speak of “duty” and how it will hurt “the people’s right to know,” etc., etc, while any business being run like a business (which any news organization is, at the end of the day…) would simply say, you don’t pay, you don’t play. Sorry. That’s it.

What makes journalism great is also what makes it suffer sometimes — that, although we are all separate news organizations and businesses, there is still a sense of a common good and camaraderie that is above profit/loss statements (hence the whole concept of sharing reporting with competitors via pool reports in the first place). But it’s when the cold, harsh reality of it all — that every news organization is a business — hits us in the face (as this debate does) that debates ensue and harsh realities have to be confronted.

After the jump we’ve got the opinions (via the countless emails being sent around) of all sorts of White House reporters on the subject…


Tribune’s Mark Silva:

As one who has pooled for the benefit of all — and done it day in and day out on weeklong trips with the first lady and vp — I couldn’t disagree more with this line of thinking.

It is our obligation to share with all of our colleagues what we glean from pool reporting. For any on this list who haven’t seen my note, this is the argument I make:

(Filed from a pool van en route to Camp David, with full pool report to follow….)

Friends, it’s a question of access.

Here we have the White House, which restricts the work of news reporters, determines what reporters can see, and when, what is open and what is closed, who will talk and who won’t, who shall be named and who shall remain “senior.”

And now we have the White House press corps, as an association, adding to a long list of what is not available for most reporters to see. Never mind the high-minded goals that brought us all here (“That the people shall know.”) The idea that pool reporting on the road with the president will be available only to those who travel and pay for it should be repugnant to our profession. I call it “pay to play.” Another colleague calls it “means-testing.”

Start with the principle:

The president moves, in-town, around the country, and abroad. His comings and goings are closely managed by the White House, which determines when reporters can see him and when they can’t, dictating when they can ask him questions and when they won’t get answers. In-town, we have a well-established rotation for pool coverage: Once a month, each of us on duty reports for the benefit of the rest of the news media — and that means, the American public — what the president is doing, who is around him, what they are saying or not saying, even what they are wearing. We don’t require anything in the sharing of our observations other than an interest in the most open coverage of the president possible.

On the road, the pool is smaller. It is formed by those who travel. And once again, particularly on foreign trips, the opportunity for all of the press to see what the president is doing, who he is around and what he is saying, is very limited. There have been foreign trips recently with precious few open-press events. The media – and that means, the American public – –counts on the pool report for color, detail, the occasional pat on a foreign leader’s fanny, the open-mic, whatever it is. Whether it is sheer color or momentous commentary, it involves the president and the people’s right to know.

And we also know that, because of the economic hardship which our business is suffering, fewer reporters are traveling with the president, because fewer news organizations can afford the freight. Which makes it all the more important that those who travel perform their duty for the rest of the press, and for the public.

Today I have listened to the genuine concerns of that dwindling pool of people whose organizations are willing to pay the price of a press charter around the world and back. I have been part of that pool, and will be again in the future. I know, firsthand, that the fewer the number who travel, the more work it means for those who do. The pool rotation comes up more frequently and can make reporting logistically challenging.

I also know that travel is a privilege, and information is a right.

I have listened, too, to people who benefit from that reporting — people who, in some cases, have never had the financial wherewithal to travel but always relied on the pool reports nonetheless. When seven or eight print reporters were traveling, we were happy to share our work with our colleagues. Now that two or three are, it has become a burden.

It really doesn’t matter how hard it is for the traveling press to file a pool report. It is a duty.

Yet now we have a small and dwindling circle of travelers who want to keep the pool report to themselves — suggesting that others who don’t pay for it have no right to see it.

This is the journalistic equivalent of soft money — 25 grand (of your employer’s money) buys you a VIP pool report.

This is antithetical to what we do as reporters. This is not who we are, or why we work.

A limited travel pool report circulation has been presented as a temporary policy, to serve through the remainder of the Bush administration, when dwindling news interest in a near lame-duck president and competing expenses for coverage of a presidential election are severely limiting White House travel. But temporary has a way of becoming permanent. And, whomever takes office in January, there isn’t a lot of reason to have faith in the future economic picture for the media. We should agree, instead, to make this policy even more temporary than it is now — I suggest, respectfully, that we rescind it.

I encourage further debate among all of us, because we cannot allow this issue to fade away.

I harbor ill-will toward no one, and appreciate it if you have read this far.

NYT’s Steven Myers:

Mark and all,

I appreciate the expressions of good faith in this debate, and share some of your concerns, but this sentence confounds me:

“It really doesn’t matter how hard it is for the traveling press to file a pool report. It is a duty.”

If it’s a duty, then why has the vast majority of the pool opted out?

The first high-minded principle being violated here, in my view, is the very concept of the pool. A collective only works if the collective participates. My goal — and I think I speak for others — is not to restrict the flow of information but to encourage maximum participation. The latter seems to be lost in the furor.

And as this debate continues, please let’s not conflate the different pools. No one is cutting off information to anyone who continues to participate in the in-town pool. No one is denying access to any organization that takes its turn in the travel pool. It’s misleading to say that the White House is restricting access, or that this decision abets that. Pool reports will continue on “pool only” trips. This applies only to those trips where newspapers choose to take a pass. The public will be represented by the newspapers that still oblige their duty, as well as the wires, radio and TV.

I am happy to entertain any alternative, but no one as far as I know has offered one yet.

Best regards,

Steve

NYT’s Sheryl Stolberg:

All: I have been trying to stay out of this debate. But given the considerable backlash, I am hereby weighing in with these thoughts on why it is only right and fair to establish a new pool duty system for presidential trips in which only those news organizations traveling receive pool reports.

1. First, the print pool system for out of town presidential trips is broken. A system that called for pool duty — let’s not forget the word duty — was set up so that we could share the responsibility for coverage, as well as the information gathered. Today only the information is shared. Newspapers small and large have given up traveling with the president, and blithely ignored their responsibility for travel pool duty, shifting both the workload and the significant expense to the few remaining newspapers that travel. One of them is my own. This means more cost for The New York Times, and a lot more work for me, because my turn comes up quite frequently these days.

2. Transcripts and wire services remain available. Newspapers already subscribe to the wires. I would submit that the wires are, in effect, pool reports for newspapers that choose not to travel. The only difference is that news organizations can’t claim information from the wires as their own — as they do with pool reports. They must attribute it.

3. All newspapers are hurting. The New York Times has just had staff cutbacks and layoffs. Each newspaper makes an individual choice about how to spend its limited resources. I do not see why my newspaper must subsidize its competitors by providing free information to newspapers whose management who no longer sees value in full-time White House coverage.

4. When I first raised this issue more than a year ago, I was persuaded that it was the moral obligation of larger, more financially comfortable, newspapers to share information with their smaller brethren. Now the picture has changed dramatically. Even large newspapers are bowing out of White House coverage. So the new system makes perfect sense. Those who pay to travel and share the workload, reap the rewards.

This doesn’t change life for me — my turn for pool duty will still come up often, and my newspaper will still pay the bill. But at least I will no longer be giving away my work to those who choose not to reciprocate.

Sheryl Stolberg
New York Times

CBS’ Mark Knoller:

I object to the changes in the pool report distribution rules.

I know you’re trying to penalize those who may be getting a free ride — but I see no way to do that without penalizing those of our colleagues who have legitimate need of the pool reports.

Often, the Press Secretary uses the print pooler as a way of getting information to all of the press — but your rules says only print reporters will get the print pool reports on foreign trips.

I have no problem culling the distribution list of those who are on this beat in name only — but all legitimate reporters on the beat should have access to them. If that means some get a free ride — so be it.

Radio and TV pool reporters are distributed must faster — and I have no problem sharing those too — but the print pool reports have depth and detail lacking in the others.

Those of us legitimately on the beat should not be cut off.

The pool reports also serve as an important record of presidential activity. It would be denied to reporters who don’t make a particular trip or take an occasional day off.

This is not well thought out. Let’s go back to the way it was.

Who’s with me?

Dallas Morning News’ Carl Leubsdorf:

Mark, you have made the case eloquently that it ill behooves us as journalists to further facilitate the efforts of the White House to limit further the access to what the President does and says. As a White House correspondent and later a bureau chief, I participated in White House pools for 20 years. Although I recognize the economic and other pressures on those who currently cover the White House, I hope the WHCA board will reconsider a policy that may seem to make sense in the short term but will be an unfortunate precedent for the future.

Heart Newspaper’s Stewart Powell:

Thank you for distributing to all of us the memo outlining planned changes for distribution of WH print pool reports. I join colleagues in urging the board to reconsider the decision to restrict distribution of travel pool reports to news organizations that travel.

The underlying reason that we have the travel pool is to be with the president in the event of an attack on the country or an attack on the president. We cannot afford to create a two track system for distribution of coverage that would be crucial to the nation.

The in-town WH print pooler gathered vivid, eyewitness accounts at the Washington Hilton Hotel after Reagan was shot in 1981 that provided all of us a more complete picture of an historic event. Had that attack taken place outside of Washington, D.C., and the adopted rules been in effect, print pool coverage could have been restricted to manifested correspondents alone.

Under the guidelines as outlined, Air Force One print pool coverage on Sept. 11 also could have had limited distribution, because the trip blended an open event in Florida with subsequently closed events en route back to Washington. Mike Allen’s award-winning Air Force One pool report on Bush’s secret trip to Baghdad also might have been deemed restricted material, because the trip to Crawford blended open and closed coverage.

Let’s take another look at this.

Thanks.

Stewart Powell
Hearst Newspapers
WHCA board 1993-1999
President 1998-1999

(Ann Compton responded to Powell’s above note)

PS — incorrect about Sept 11th — travel pool event in school room, open coverage in school cafeteria. in the travel pool that day was Jay Carney of Time. Mags no longer travel at all.

Wrong too about a baghdad trip — absolutely there would be a pool since there was no ability of WH reporters to travel to the site.

Media General News Service’s Marsha Mercer:

I too endorse Mark Silva’s eloquent statement.

WSJ’s John McKinnon:

Reluctantly, Mark, I’m siding with Sheryl, Steven et al on this.

There are roughly 30 papers in the in-town rotation, but only 3 or 4 currently are traveling on the long trips. Obviously I don’t know the circumstances at every one of these papers (I don’t even know the circumstances at mine). But I’m just doubtful that all these non-travelers simply can’t afford this travel. Many of them are covering the campaigns, as well as other stories that require expensive travel like the Olympics. Their managers are making a choice not to travel with the WH.

My hope is that this action might refocus the managers’ attention on the WH, and give them another reason to want to send their reporters. In the meantime, I think their actions are contributing to a significant spiral in costs for the remaining travelers. So I wouldn’t call this pay to play. I’d call it an attempt to share the costs and other burdens more equitably.

Houston Chronicle’s Julie Mason:

Steve,

I appreciate the point you are making. I think you are missing a key issue here. I do not speak for all regional papers, but I know I speak for a few — we don’t travel because we don’t have the money anymore. It’s not my “choice” to skip trips. I am not “blithely” disregarding pool obligations. My company will not pay. We used to go on every trip, but those days are over for many of us.

So, the NYT withholding information will not persuade my employer or presumably any others to start ponying up to ease the understandable burden placed on big papers.

And with regard to proposals floating around for regional papers to start subsidizing big-paper travel, I only half-facetiously ask these same proponents to consider having the national papers subsidize our travel. It’s just as likely. If my company isn’t paying for me to go, they are certainly not going to pay for anyone else.

My only aim here is to extract from this debate the notion that many of us no longer travel with the president from a lack of interest, or any reason other than strictly financial.

Julie

USA Today’s Susan Page:

I agree with Stewart. This is a big decision, and seems clear that it deserves more discussion. I would urge the current board to take a step back and allow that discussion to take place before imposing these new restrictions.

Thanks for considering.
Susan

Hearst Newspaper Bureau Chief Chuck Lewis:

Mark Silva:

I concur enthusiastically with your sentiments.

I also am concerned about the process by which WHCA appears to have been hijacked by a few and has been made complicit in creating a two-tier pool system, thus negating the fundamental concept of “pool.”

Connie Lawn:

I have just made this suggestion to Ann. If the members want to split their resources, and help out those of us who cannot afford to travel, we would be delighted to help out as pool. After 40 years on this beat, I am more than prepared to do so.

While we are on the subject of costs, why not question all of the Presidents trips.How much do they cost the tax payer? Is there any accounting? Shouldn’t they be reduced, in this time of world wide crises?Yours, Connie Lawn

In a separate email chain, Compton confessed that “I have taken tremendous grief for the board action yesterday and several media organizations phoned — I asked each one — hey, if you want back in, how about travleling next Tuesday. dead silence.” To which the White House’s deputy assistant press secretary Carlton Carroll responded: “Oh, that is classic. Everyone complains until you ask them to step up and travel.”

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