In the old days, they were photocopied and placed in bins near the back of White House briefing room. As years went by, they began appearing in the inboxes of Washington journalists via email.
And on Tuesday, the distribution of White House pool reports was changed yet again when journalists at Gawker Media announced they had begun publishing the dispatches directly to the Web.News of the change was greeted differently by various members of the White House press corps, who held a vigorous back-and-forth about whether the pool reports, which are largely not written for general consumption, should be made instantly available to the public at large.
“Some people object to putting in all of that work and then submitting reports from which others draw and prosper without ever putting in a day’s work,” said Christi Parsons, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and a White House correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. “On the other hand, others feel that this is a public good, even a public service, and that it belongs to anyone who wants it on the exact same time frame as the soldiers who do the work.”
In this case, the soldiers are poolers, members of the press corps who trail the president and other White House VIPs on official excursions. The briefs they file have long been used by Washington journalists to fill out stories chronicling the comings and goings of the commander-in-chief and his entourage.
The pact is simple: The pool, a mini-news cooperative composed of outlets that cover the executive, assigns reporters on a rotating basis to tail White House officials and record the details of their day. It’s essentially an open notebook that can be used by any other reporter with access to the report.
But before journalists can use the reports, they are first filtered through White House officials, who distribute them to the press corps via email. This has led to cases of censorship from an administration that has occasionally tried to squelch certain details. In October, The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reported that White House officials demanded that reporters cut out pieces of their dispatches, including details of the president’s appearance on “The Tonight Show” and one of Michelle Obama’s trips to the gym.
In both cases, the reporters acquiesced to the changes before the White House sent along the reports to all the recipients of the email list.
This specter of censorship, real and perceived, has been the subject of intense discussion among White House correspondents since Gawker Media made the reports available to the public, said Dan Roberts, White House bureau chief for The Guardian. Rather than waiting for the White House to approve the dispatches and send them along to Gawker and others, journalists have floated the possibility of sending each other the pool reports directly and providing a copy to the executive, essentially cutting out the middle man.
There is one big disadvantage to this, of course — distributing the reports to the entirety of the press corps would mean taking on the cumbersome task of maintaining the list of recipients, a burden that the White House currently bears, Roberts said. White House correspondents have come down on both sides of the issue.
“I personally think the Gawker intervention is very helpful, because it’s forced a debate that’s been coming far too slowly about how the pool operates,” Roberts said.
How the pool operates and who should get access to the reports has been debated before. In 2009, Gawker began publishing the reports manually, shortly after Web native sites like The Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo joined the pool, but quickly abandoned the effort because it was taking too much time, said John Cook, Gawker Media’s executive editor for investigations. This time around, the reports are posted automatically by a tool created in the company’s Editorial Labs division.
Gawker Media’s decision to publish the reports was motivated primarily by a desire to lift the curtain on information that’s confined to a select group of people, Cook said. Traffic to the reports has been “negligible,” but their publication is not a play for more readers.
“Anytime you have open secrets or information that’s relevant, or limited to a select few, I like to expand the body of knowledge and let people who aren’t clued in have access to it,” Cook said. “And this is sort of a prime case.”
Information in the pool reports wasn’t exactly confidential before Gawker Media decided to publish them. Although the White House distributes them to a group of recipients, that list reportedly numbers in the thousands, and includes non-journalists in addition to news agencies. Press pool dispatches are published regularly on the official blog of Fox News host Greta Van Susteren and juicy excerpts have appeared on Fishbowl DC’s “This Week In Pool Reports” feature.
“It seems to me as if there’s no real reason for the association to get worked up about it,” said Patrick Gavin, who used to edit the pool reports feature at Fishbowl DC. “The pool reports go out to an obscene amount of people anyway. If there were claims about exclusivity, those went out the door a long time ago.”
Still, some White House reporters question the wisdom of making informal notes available to everyone immediately. Michael Shear, who covers the White House for The New York Times, encourages readers to consume “the actual finished journalism that all of these hardworking journalists are producing.”
“It really was never intended to be a kind of public historical documentation for the world,” Shear said. “It was intended to be reporters solving a logistical problem by sharing their notes about what they saw by following the president around.”