New White House Pool Report Restrictions Inspire Pushback

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By: Joe Strupp

New rules that limit White House pool reporting have sparked opposition from numerous Washington-based news outlets who say the new limitations will keep them out of the coverage.

The new rules limit distribution of press pool reports on presidential trips only to reporters who are traveling with the president.

“You don?t want to keep the information so closely held, you want it widely available,” said Marsha Mercer, bureau chief of MediaGeneral’s D.C. bureau. “It is not a good precedent.” Adds McClatchy White House Correspondent William Douglas: “It just feels wrong. I don?t think it’s the right decision. That is not the point of being in a pool.”

Under current policy set by the White House Correspondents’ Association, journalists who participate in pool coverage, either domestically or overseas, take turns writing pool reports that are later distributed by the White House Press Office to other news outlets that request them. Those reports often are the basis for coverage by news outlets that are not traveling with the president, or even able to get to White House events.

In recent years, however, as fewer and fewer news outlets are able to pay for regular travel with the president, the responsibility of writing pool reports is falling more often to the same small group of reporters.

Because of that, and decreased interest in President Bush’s recent trips, WHCA President Ann Compton and incoming President Jennifer Loven distributed the new rules on Wednesday in an e-mail to WHCA members.

It stated, in part:

“On domestic trips when there are both open and pool events, the Air Force One pool report and other pooled events will be shared only among those reporters traveling. There will be no print pool report issued to the general press e-mail list through the White House press office. Example — the President?s western trip which included several stops and a commencement address at the Air Force Academy in May.

“On foreign trips, print pool reports will be circulated only among the print reporters manifested on the press charter. This begins with the G-8 trip July 5.”

The e-mail added: “West Wing photo ops, and other events or travel where open coverage is denied will still require pool reports distributed through the White House press office. Example — the President?s pool-only tour of Iowa?s flood damage on June 19th. Print organizations have an obligation to participate in the pool rotation and the WHCA Board reserves the right to restrict these policies further if members do not do so.”

But it added that the “suspension of pool reports will have no impact on the distribution of transcripts and other materials by the White House.”

Compton could not be reached for comment Thursday. But Loven, an Associated Press correspondent who takes over later this summer as WHCA president, defended the move.

“The plan was for it to be temporary and we are flexible,” she said. “I do think we feel like we addressed it properly, and addressed it fairly.”

When asked why the issue could not wait until a new WHCA Board is elected in July, Loven said: “There was no real calculation behind the timing other than the problem was getting worse and worse and worse.”

The initial reaction to the rule change has sparked a flurry of e-mail between WHCA members and Compton and Loven. Some contend the change is unfair to smaller papers, while others defended the move as a way to handle the growing reliance on larger papers, such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, who tend to handle more of the pool report duty.

“I understand the point of those who shoulder the extra duty on these trips,” said Andy Alexander, Washinton bureau chief for Cox Newspapers. “But I wonder if there was adequate opportunity for members of the White House Correspondents’ Association to vote on it. I am hoping we can, through discussions, come up with some alternative. But I don’t know what it is.”

Dean Baquet, New York Times Washington Bureau Chief whose reporters handle many of the pool report duties, said only: “this is a tricky issue and I would hope for us to be able to work it out.”

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