As we mentioned earlier this week, the WHCA has invited Salon, Politico the Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo into the White House pool rotation—the system whereby the White House press corps joins together and appoints one outlet to follow the president during his waking hours and file reports that everyone can use. According to the most recent rotation schedule, there are 34 outlets in the "print" pool. (Click the image at left to see a bigger version of this month's schedule.) The order of the shifts are assigned alphabetically, though if you are, for example, the poor sap at the New York Daily News who drew Christmas, you can try to talk someone else into swapping shifts with you. Partly this is done so that every news organization doesn't have to dedicate a full-time reporter to gathering the most basic of facts about the President's activities. But it also helps the White House to not have to herd 34 reporters onto a bus whenever Obama leaves 1600 Pennsylvania.
"This is really troubling," said New York Times reporter Peter Baker in an email to POLITICO. "We're blurring the line between news and punditry even further and opening ourselves to legitimate questions among readers about where the White House press corps gets its information."
Baker said he has no problem with outlets like Huffington Post, which he described "an important part of the marketplace of ideas." But the site, he said, has a mission "to produce pieces with strongly argued points of view" and that puts the Times-or other non-partisan news organizations-"in a position of relying on overtly ideological or opinionated organizations as our surrogate news gatherers."
Though we wouldn't quite call it "troubling," we actually understand where Baker's coming from. But there's a rather glaring irony here: The main reason for putting the new kids into the pool is there's fewer people in the print world left to do it. When newspapers close or consolidate their Washington bureaus to save what little money they have left, the pool loses bodies. If Baker doesn't want to rely on pool reports from some leftist blogger, the Times will have to either a) exit the pool and assign someone to cover Obama's comings and goings full-time with the paper's own resources, which it doesn't have, because blogs are slowly killing it, or b) offer to pick up the shifts that Salon, Huffington Post, and TPM reporters are taking over.
It's a rather concise little vignette about the plight of newspapers: Online outlets that the old newspapers regard as insufficiently reverent to the ideals of journalism are able to attract readers by not being stodgy and hidebound; newspapers are laying off so many reporters that they don't have the manpower to do the boring work they consider as their core mission; when the online (i.e. reckless) outlets step up to fill the gap, they sniff at them for being insufficiently stodgy and hidebound.
Not to mention that, as Matthew Yglesias puts it, the pool is little more than a "mutually agreed upon plagiarism pact"—members of the pool simply fold the reporting into their stories as though they were actually there. So Baker isn't being forced to rely on "overtly ideological" outlets for his reporting. He is free to quote from the reports and cite their authors, thereby insulating his paper from any partisan influence. But that would require abandoning the fiction of the pool reports altogether and alert the Times readers to the fact that its reporters are not everywhere, all the time.
In defending the idea of letting folks like TPM participate in the pool, WHCA president Ed Chen claimed that ideological leanings don't matter, because the pool reports themselves are "transparent" and available for everybody to inspect:
"So whether it's [the Huffington Post's] Sam Stein or [TPM's] Christina Bellantoni or Peter Baker, all of our work is out in the public," Chen said. "It's transparent, can be judged, and when there are violations, we'll come down on them."
We think that's a magnificent idea, so we've decided to make Chen's claim a reality. Gawker was recently added to the White House Press Office's email list, which along with official press releases, speech transcripts and advisories, includes the presidential pool reports. The fact that the White House is in charge of distributing the raw reporting of people covering the White House is, as we've noted before, deeply strange. Since the pool reports are by their very definition "on the record," and are distributed by the White House to the entire press list (not just the pool participants), it seems to us they should be considered public records. In fact, it's never made sense to us why the White House Correspondents' Association doesn't just post them to a web site of their own.
So, we're stepping up to fill the gap. We have posted all the reports we've gotten in the past week to the tag page #publicpool, and will post each new report to that page as we receive them. We recommend having a look. You can find some interesting things, like the time when Politico reporter Nia-Malika Henderson, in covering the Obama state dinner as a pooler, threw a plug for Politico into her report—"shameless promotion for POLITICO...see this link for more details on the bookstore arrivals..."—and actually appeared live on CNN while she was on pool duty, which kind of defeats the purpose of pool duty. There's all kinds of great stuff in there. Enjoy. We'll update it early and often.
Oh, and before you accuse us of just freeloading off the work of real journalists, Gawker is volunteering for pool duty if the WHCA will have us. Gabriel says the travel budget can cover a once-a-month Amtrak ticket to DC.