White House press-pool reports are supposed to be the news media’s eyes and ears on the president, an independent chronicle of his public activities. They are written by reporters for other reporters, who incorporate them into news articles about President Obama almost every day.
Sometimes, however, the White House plays an unseen role in shaping the story.
Journalists who cover the White House say Obama’s press aides have demanded — and received — changes in press-pool reports before the reports have been disseminated to other journalists. They say the White House has used its unusual role as the distributor of the reports as leverage to steer coverage in a more favorable direction.
The disputed episodes involve mostly trivial issues and minor matters of fact. But that the White House has become involved at all represents a troubling trend for journalists and has prompted their main representative, the White House Correspondents’ Association, to consider revising its approach to pool reporting.
The decades-old White House press pool was created as a practical compromise between the news media and the nation’s chief executive: Instead of having a mob of journalists jostling to cover the president at every semi-public function, a handful of reporters are designated to act as proxies, or “poolers,” for the entire press corps. Poolers are chosen on a rotating basis from among regular White House correspondents, and they typically get more favorable access to presidential events to provide coverage that is shared with other reporters.
But before a pool report lands in anyone’s inbox, pool reporters take an interim step. They send their files to the White House press office, which forwards them via e-mail to a database of thousands of recipients, including news outlets, federal agencies and congressional offices. This two-step process enables White House staffers to read the pool reports — and potentially object to them — before press aides send them to recipients.
While the overwhelming majority of pool reports pass through the White House without delay or amendment, some have been flagged by the administration’s press staff, which has demanded changes as a condition of distributing them.
When Anita Kumar of the McClatchy newspaper chain covered Obama’s appearance on “The Tonight Show” for the press pool last year, she wrote a detailed account of the taped program. Kumar thought her story would be sent to pool recipients hours before the show aired. Instead, White House press staffers objected to the length of her file, saying it violated an agreement with the program’s producers to limit advance publicity. They told Kumar to pare down her account before they would distribute it.
Kumar reluctantly complied, but the request made her uneasy. “The worry is that when you send in a pool report, the White House is reading it and approving it,” she said.