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.
Other journalists tell similar tales about White House objections.
As the pool reporter on a presidential trip to California in mid-2012, Todd Gillman of the Dallas Morning News included a colorful scene in his pool file: Obama walking back to the press section of Air Force One bearing a dessert with a lighted candle to honor a veteran reporter who was making her final presidential trip. Gillman added the seemingly innocuous detail that Obama asked the honoree to blow out the candle and make a wish, “preferably one that had something to do with the number 270,” the minimum number of electoral college votes the president needed to win reelection.
A press aide, whom Gillman declined to identify, asserted that the details of this scene were off the record and refused to distribute Gillman’s account. Only after Gillman appealed to then-press secretary Jay Carney was the report finally sent — a day after the fact and long after reporters’ deadlines had passed.
On another occasion, in 2011, Carney himself objected to a pool report that included a mention of first lady Michelle Obama working out at a hotel gym during a presidential trip to Asia. Carney told the pool reporter, David Nakamura of The Washington Post, that the workout was part of the first lady’s personal time and therefore off limits to reporters. Nakamura disagreed but reluctantly deleted the line to ensure that his report would be sent.
During the same trip, then-deputy press secretary Josh Earnest flagged another of Nakamura’s reports. This one contained a comment juxtaposing a speech Obama had given two days earlier lauding freedom of the press with the administration’s decision to limit access to presidential photo ops on the trip.
Earnest, who succeeded Carney as press secretary in May, considered Nakamura’s comparison unfair and asked him to take it out, according to Nakamura. After an argument, the reporter acquiesced.
Several veteran journalists say their pool reports have sailed through the White House without incident. Peter Baker, a New York Times White House reporter, said the only input from a presidential press aide that he’s ever gotten while on pool duty was help with his spelling or a factual error. In decades of reporting on the White House, Tom DeFrank, contributing editor of the National Journal, said he’s been asked by aides to change something in a pool report only once — during the Ford administration. He refused.
“My view is the White House has no right to touch a pool report,” DeFrank said. “It’s none of their business. If they want to challenge something by putting out a statement of their own, that’s their right. It’s also their prerogative to jawbone a reporter, which often happens. But they have no right to alter a pool report unilaterally.”
That is also the view of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), which negotiates with the White House press staff on issues involving journalists.
“The independence of the print pool reports is of utmost importance to us,” said Christi Parsons, a Los Angeles Times reporter who is the WHCA’s new president. “Our expectation is that the White House puts out the pool report and asks questions later.”
Parsons said she received assurances that that would be the case when she discussed the issue with Earnest this summer.
Earnest declined to comment on the record. His chief deputy, Eric Schultz, said in a statement: “We value the role of the independent press pool, which provides timely, extensive, and important coverage of the president and his activities while at the White House and around the world. That is why, at the request of the White House Correspondents Association, the White House has distributed 20,000 pool reports in the past six years, and we will continue to offer that facilitation for journalists as they work to chronicle the presidency.”
Nevertheless, the WHCA has begun discussing ways to end the White House’s role in disseminating pool reports from print and online reporters (broadcast journalists maintain a separate pool, which has only a handful of recipients and no White House involvement). 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. An experiment using a password-protected Google Group began this summer, but so far the White House remains in charge.
Some journalists say the Obama White House has been more vigilant than its predecessors in scrutinizing pool reports and at times has objected to seemingly trivial details.
One such episode occurred this summer when Jennifer Bendery, a reporter with the Huffington Post, included in her pool story the fact that a White House intern had fainted at the end of the daily press briefing. Earnest objected, according to Bendery, saying the intern would be “smeared” by the story. Bendery replied that she hadn’t identified the young woman by name and had added new information by reporting on her recovery. But Earnest insisted this was out of bounds.
After Bendery’s editor protested that the White House was obstructing the reporter, Earnest backed down, and her account was distributed. But the episode left Bendery a little bruised. “I don’t know why the White House tries to be an editor or middleman,” she said. “They’re just supposed to hit ‘forward’ ” to send the pool reports on their way.
The administration's concerns about even minor details may reflect the pool reports’ broad influence and relatively large readership, says Alexis Simendinger, a White House reporter for the Web site Real Clear Politics.
Simendinger, who has written pool accounts since the early 1990s, remembers when the reports were published on paper and were available only to those who picked them up from a special bin at the White House. “It used to be a small and clubby readership,” she said. “Now it’s enormous. That has made each White House progressively more sensitive.”
Simendinger found out herself early last year when she reported the details of a series of private presidential receptions for campaign donors during inauguration week. She had been unable to get a comment about the events from the White House press office while she was preparing her pool story. But press aides noticed what she had written when she submitted her report for distribution. They immediately summoned her to the press office.
After a brief delay, the White House offered her a statement on the receptions. Simendinger happily added it to her story.