Who Runs the White House Pool Report?

Our new president loves transparency and freedom. But he also likes controlling and manipulating the press. That's why a traditionally insidery set of White House reporters' notes is becoming a public controversy.

The Oval, a USA Today political blog, noted that the new WhiteHouse.gov website had a section for posting pool reports.

Which is odd, considering that the pool report is essentially a communal reporter's notebook, and such an act would amount to the subject of a story — the most powerful man on earth — getting access to the reporter's notes and posting them online.

The White House pool report grew out of a simple problem of supply and demand. Every newspaper, magazine, radio station, and TV channel wants to cover the president; but the White House only allows so many reporters in. So the reporters take turns in the pool and file notes to all of their colleagues, which any of them can use. Print, radio, and TV have distinct pools, and each medium has its own practices; but the print pool for newspapers and magazines is the one people most often discuss.

The pool report gets distributed far and wide beyond its intended recipients, and blogs like The Oval have taken to posting it routinely. White House staff have also long gotten copied on its contents. One particularly incendiary report written by Dana Milbank of the Washington Post in 2001 got him in hot water with the Bush Administration. Since then, pool reporters have been a bit more cautious, though writers still fill it with snarky, obsessively detailed comments on the president's every move. A recent one complained that the pool was held outside while Obama showered and not allowed a glimpse of the First Body.

Though the pool report's contents are well known, the mechanics of its distribution remain obscure. Why would the White House be the one to post it? Why not the White House Correspondents Association? That organization seems to have two duties: organizing an annual party, the White House Correspondents Dinner, and negotiating for access with the White House press office on behalf of its members.

WHCA executive director Julia Whiston did not seem particularly pleased to get a call from Gawker and asked for an email inquiry. Why would the White House would be involved in distributing the pool report in the first place? Her first answer:

From: WHCA
To: Owen Thomas
Date: Jan 21, 2009 9:49 AM
Subject: Re: WhiteHouse.gov to post pool reports?

They were only doing it as a temporary stopgap until they were capable of using distribution lists to send them out. They never actually did post pool reports and don't plan this now. This is their intention.

Asked on a follow-up call if "they" were the White House press office, she said, "No." The member publications of her organization? "No." She then said she had forwarded the inquiry to a member of the WHCA's access committee, and that person would respond.

Actually, though, she was blowing off the question. How do we know this? She bragged about doing exactly that in an email she meant to forward to a colleague, but accidentally hit "reply" on instead:

From: WHCA
To: Owen Thomas
Date: Jan 21, 2009 10:50 AM
Subject: Re: WhiteHouse.gov to post pool reports?

See below at your leisure...he got my response and then called and began pressing me. I didn't answer any questions.....Said I may have someone from the access cmt get back to him. When I asked him what organization he was with he said...Gawker. (Gossip on line).

Now we were the peeved ones and we asked why she didn't forward my inquiry, as she said she would, and if she or a colleague would care to give me a straight answer. She wrote back:

Please call the White House press office and ask one of the spokespeople, Jen Psaki, or Bill Burton, whether they plan to put pool reports on their Website. We don't speak for the WH press office.
We were fine with a temporary solution to yesterday's problem in the interest of seeing information distributed when there was little other way given the technological gap for that to happen (tho in the end pool reports were never even posted on whitehouse.gov) and we have stressed that pool reports cannot be a permanent fixture on the website. They have agreed, but again it's up to the WH to speak for what they will or will not do with their website.

She didn't explain what "yesterday's problem" was, or why the White House had even a temporary role in distributing reporters' notes on the president's activities.

So a call went to the White House press office for an explanation of its involvement in distributing pool reports. The young-sounding fellow who answered the phone took down the question. And then he paused. "You know we're posting the pool reports to WhiteHouse.gov, right?"