At least that’s the way it used to be. In the Trump era — or, more precisely, in the waning days of the Trump administration — press pool reports have taken on a more cutting edge.
“The president has nothing on his public schedule today,” began HuffPost reporter Shirish Date’s pool report Tuesday. “He also has not posted any falsehoods on Twitter about winning the election or fraud or anything else, for that matter, in more than 11 hours. The day, however, is young.”
On the morning after Election Day, Yahoo News reporter Hunter Walker noted in his pool report how he was delayed from getting to his post by a backlogged coronavirus screening process at the White House that, he wrote, had press aides asking, “Where’s Hunter?”
“A great question,” Walker added, which knowledgeable readers took as wry reference to President Trump’s obsession with Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
And there were the unusually colorful reports from New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi, who was the “pooler” for Vice President Pence on a final campaign swing through the Midwest. Pence didn’t take any questions from the press pool, she wrote: “We’ve seen him only for a couple of wooden, monarchical waves” to supporters.
Although pool reports generally aren’t circulated widely among the general public — most news organizations use just the nuggets of information buried within to write their own stories — their tone has nonetheless started to irritate members of the White House press staff. Pence’s communications chief was so put off by two of Nuzzi’s later pool filings that she took the rare step of refusing to send them via the White House’s email distribution list, leading Nuzzi to claim censorship.
Faced with such objections, the leadership of the White House Correspondents’ Association, which oversees the daily pool rotation among news organizations, has recently discussed what it can do about pool reports that stray from its rules of the road, according to people involved in the discussions.
The WHCA last updated its guidelines in 2018, when it instructed poolers to stick with the basics: “Include the facts of what the president did, when he did it, who he met, what he said, what they said. Include color,” it says. The goal is to eliminate editorializing or the appearance of bias against officials.
In most cases, this elicits rote dispatches, such as this from a campaign trip in late October: “Motorcade arrived on the tarmac at Miami International Airport at 12:25 p.m. after a short drive from Doral and pulled to a stop beside AF1 at 12:28. POTUS quickly exited his SUV and boarded using the lower stairs.”
But asking reporters for “color” may provide a bit of an opening for some of the more expansive commentary, such as Date’s observation last month about a Trump campaign venue: “The tables set up for the press are covered with rainwater, potentially creating an electrical hazard with the indoor power strips.”
Zeke Miller, the association’s president, declined to discuss specific pool reports but said their goal is to provide a basic account of what occurred.
“Print poolers serve on behalf of all journalists — hundreds who can’t be there in person to cover events,” said Miller, who covers the White House for the Associated Press. “Their reports serve as an essential record of every presidency.”
Pool reports have been a staple of White House newsgathering for decades. White House communications officials like them because they ensure a steady flow of information about photo ops and ceremonial activities. Publishers like them, too, because they relieve many news organizations of the cost of sending their own reporter on an expensive presidential trip. (News organizations take turns handling pool duty.) Pools also solve a basic logistical problem: How to accommodate journalists when a venue’s capacity is limited.
Until 2014, the White House was the sole distributor of pool reports, which are sent via email to several thousand recipients. But the WHCA stepped in after journalists complained that President Barack Obama’s press aides were using their distribution leverage to demand editorial changes favorable to the administration. In response, the WHCA devised its own online distribution system free of White House control and aimed primarily at its members. The White House continues to distribute the same reports to its list of recipients.
Humorous or quirky pool reports are by no means new. What has changed, reporters say, are the president and the media landscape.
Date, the HuffPost reporter who wrote Tuesday’s pool report, said it would be a “disservice” if he didn’t call out the president’s lies about the election results. “His dishonesty and his falsehoods are as basic a part of the who-what-where landscape as the color of his tie,” he said.
Yet pool reports are more widely distributed now than when they were considered “raw notes” passed among reporters, said Peter Baker, a longtime White House reporter who works at the New York Times. Recipients now include a wide variety of publications, some with more attitude than others. “To me, the most important thing is that they contain the information we need in order to know what a president is doing and saying, regardless of how they’re written,” he said.
In the post-election lull, with a brooding president staying almost completely out of sight, pool reporters have found themselves with little to report but their own punchiness.
“Celebratory shouting rang out through the press workspace after the press office announcement at 8:13 pm that signaled to pool reporters that they could go home,” Francesca Chambers of McClatchy reported Wednesday. Friday’s pooler, Todd Gillman of the Dallas Morning News, included a response in his report to a fellow reporter’s inquiry about the president going gray. “From 20 feet away, it appears light blond but I can see where it might appear gray in the right light on TV.”
Nuzzi, the New York magazine reporter, said she got crosswise with Pence’s staff after divulging in a pool report that staff members had removed their masks once they had settled into their seats on Air Force Two. Told that anything occurring on the vice president’s plane was off the record and therefore not reportable, Nuzzi doubled down — filing a subsequent pool report noting that she had never agreed to go off the record. “What if they had redecorated the inside of the plane with fluffy pink seat coverings or something, would that be off the record?” she wrote.
In another pool dispatch, she wondered at length whether Pence minded spending so much time listening to Trump: “Was it worth it, if in the end, he doesn’t become president — the outcome every Vice President so desperately hopes for?”
Finally, after Nuzzi reported on a conversation she overheard between Pence’s wife, Karen Pence, and her staff, Pence aide Katie Miller retaliated — refusing to distribute Nuzzi’s report or her subsequent report about how the campaign had refused to send out the preceding report. Both went out anyway through the WHCA’s distribution list and Nuzzi’s Twitter feed.
Miller told WHCA officials that Nuzzi would be left off the flight home if she continued to file reports that the vice president’s aides deemed objectionable. So Nuzzi filed a kind of pool-protest report that read, “In order to avoid being ejected from the flight, your pooler agreed to not have an eye for detail or a personality for the rest of the night.”
In retrospect, Nuzzi said, “the entire episode just further confirmed for me that Washington is run in every department by humorless, frightened people who hate themselves.” She also faulted the WHCA’s Zeke Miller for not protesting the withholding of her pool reports. He “does not possess the qualities necessary to be president of a garden club, never mind” the leading White House press organization, she said.
Pence’s office declined to comment, as did Zeke Miller.