Like hall monitors of the worst kind, White House staff is playing middleman with White House pool reports, sometimes changing lines and forbidding information written by reporters.
A report by Washington Post‘s media writer Paul Farhi cites a number of White House correspondents on record explaining how and when their reports have been changed or complained about. The story concedes that many of the issues are trivial in nature.
But the problem is where is the line and who decides it?
The way the system currently works is that a reporter writes up his pool report and it’s filtered through the White House Press Office. At which point the report is sent to a mass distribution list of reporters.
But since when do White House staffers consider themselves news editors?
“Never had anybody change my pool reports that I can remember and that’s the kinda thing I would’ve pitched a fit about,” said Sam Youngman, a former White House reporter for The Hill who now works for the Kentucky Herald-Leader.
But Julie Mason, who hosts SiriusXM’s “Press Pool” and formerly sat on the board of the White House Correspondents’ Association, says it’s n ongoing problem.
“This is something the board has dealt with for years,” she told The Mirror. “The problems include how to distribute pool reports to an unwieldy, constantly shifting White House press corps. How to manage the list? How to handle distribution? The board right now is working on some scenarios with Google lists. It’s a big job which is why the White House has traditionally handled it. They have the capacity to hit ‘send’ and get the pool reports to every member of the WHPC immediately.
“But over time, that distribution list has grown to include agencies, staffers, even big political contributors — almost like a perk or something. It’s really just a work product for journalists. And then there is the problem with the press office meddling with content. It’s annoying, but every time we have tried to figure out a solution, it just gets too complicated. For example, what about when people fill in and just do pool once? How to handle overseas trips? Who should maintain the lists?
“It sounds easy but it’s not. (As a former board member, we talked about this a lot, it’s still an issue).”
Examples of details that upset the White House:
- A President Obama appearance on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” — White House staffers took issue with the length of the pooler’s report. They also concerned themselves with the show, saying it provided too much advance publicity. The reporter gave in. The White House won that round.
- During a trip to California, the President gave a reporter desert with a candle. He jokingly told the reporter to wish for something concerning the number 270 (number of electoral votes needed to win the White House). A White House press aide claimed the detail was off the record — what the hell? In this case, the reporter won, but the report was sent out a day later.
- Oh, you thought the first lady’s biceps were free game? Um, no. In another instance, former White House Press Sec. Jay Carney complained about a report that contained Michelle Obama working out. The reported ultimately deleted the line.
- A White House intern fainting also caused angst for the White House Press Office. This time, it was current Press Sec. Josh Earnest who pitched a fit about it. Earnest, after getting a lot of pushback, lost the battle. The report was sent with the news of the fainting, an incident that was widely reported by news organizations.
The Sunday Times of London‘s Washington Bureau Chief Toby Harnden sees the irony in the White House trying to censor some of life’s more mundane details.
“It’s ironic that the White House has tried to censor details in pool reports about birthday cakes for reporters and workouts by the First Lady but failed to notice the naming of the CIA’s Kabul station chief, a clandestine officer,” he told The Mirror. “Given the White House’s apparent inability to stop itself from censoring, pool reports should be sent out directly rather than via the White House press office. We should also stop allowing administration press officers and other aides to hide behind the moniker ‘senior administration official’ in White House conference calls and briefings.”
This summer, the White House Correspondents’ Association contemplated ways to wipe out White House distribution of the pool reports. A Google Group, for instance, is in the works.
“The central problem is how to manage the database of recipients now overseen by the White House’s staff. Several WHCA members say it would be difficult for an ever-changing group of pool reporters to write dispatches on tight deadlines and simultaneously distribute their work to such a large e-mail list.”
For now, the White House remains in charge.