Among the more tedious duties that come with being assigned to the White House press corps is something called “pool duty”.
Each day, reporters from the three major wire services (the Associated Press, Bloomberg and Reuters) will join a radio network correspondent, a television correspondent and camera crew, and a correspondent from one of 30 or so print or online publications to cover whatever it is that the president is doing that day.
That small group follows the sitting president wherever he may go, whether by car, plane, or helicopter. Even if the press isn’t allowed in wherever the president may be, they’ll “hold” outside, usually in a van or another suitable and nearby location. But a cardinal rule of what some have taken to calling the “body watch” is that reporters and photographers should always be on hand to see the president arrive and leave.
White House reporters don’t take kindly to being kept away, either. After then-president-elect Donald Trump ditched his press pool multiple times in a week in late 2016, the White House Correspondents’ Association issued a sternly-worded statement calling it “unacceptable for the next president of the United States to travel without a regular pool to record his movements and inform the public about his whereabouts”.
There’s an important — and macabre — reason for this.
Just over 59 years ago, the press pool was how the world first heard that shots had been fired at President John F Kennedy’s motorcade during a visit to Dallas, Texas.
Merriman Smith, the United Press International reporter in the press car trailing Kennedy’s limousine, had heard the three gunshots that Lee Harvey Oswald fired from the Texas School Book Depository. He picked up the primitive radiotelephone provided for press use and called the story in.
DALLAS, NOV. 22(UPI)--THREE SHOTS WERE FIRED AT PRESIDENT KENNEDY'S MOTORCADE TODAY IN DOWNTOWN DALLAS
Another 17 years later, the press pool was how the world first saw the horrifying images of the 1981 assassination attempt on then-president Ronald Reagan as he exited the Washington, DC Hilton hotel.
Footage shot by the NBC News pool crew captured the dreadful moment when a mentally ill man fired six shots at Reagan, panned right to show a swarm of police and Secret Service agents tackle the assassin, panned back to the left as Reagan’s limousine sped away, then zoomed in on the awful sight of White House Press Secretary James Brady lying facedown as blood seeped from a wound on his head.
Given the history involved, one might believe the outrage reporters showed this week after Vogue published a glossy exclusive on the White House wedding of President Joe Biden’s granddaughter, Naomi Biden, was informed by their knowledge that having the “pool” go wherever the president goes is deadly serious business.
After Vogue published its’ story, colleagues of mine at the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Daily Mail all took to Twitter to register their displeasure with Brady’s present-day successor, Karine Jean-Pierre.
Last week, Ms Jean-Pierre had said that Ms Biden’s wedding was being conducted as a private event, and stressed that no reporter from any news outlet would be permitted to cover the happy occasion.
So when the fashion magazine’s story hit the internet on Tuesday, many of the same reporters began whinging and sarcastically tweeting out the Vogue story with Ms Jean-Pierre’s previous statement attached, the clear implication being that she’d lied to them even though Vogue had not had a reporter at the White House during the wedding. Instead, the magazine was permitted inside the White House residence for a photo shoot several days before, and provided with photos of the ceremony and subsequent reception by the wedding photographer the Biden family had hired to document the occasion.
But such details appeared lost on my colleagues, who are ordinarily some of the best, most well-sourced reporters on the White House beat and whose work routinely leaves me furious with envy over their ability to suss out minute details of what is happening inside the West Wing on any given day.
Some of Ms Jean-Pierre’s critics have suggested that the Biden family’s refusal to allow the pool the same access to Naomi Biden’s wedding that they would have had to any other White House event is motivated by the same outrage that led the WHCA to condemn Mr Trump when he ditched his press entourage.
On Fox News, former Trump White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany (one of the most notoriously inveterate liars to occupy the office Brady held when a bullet meant for his boss robbed him of his ability to walk and speak) pointed to reporters’ complaints as evidence that her successor’s alleged duplicity was commonplace.
The problem for all involved is that Ms Jean-Pierre was telling the truth. Vogue didn’t cover the wedding, they had a prepared story and supplemented it with photos provided by the Biden family — photos that were not shot by any working photojournalist.
What my colleagues are whinging about isn’t an affront to press freedom, but it is the reality for the vast majority of those of us assigned to cover the president.
Each of the reporters who spent time and effort to complain that a fashion magazine got to cover a wedding works for an outlet that spends considerable sums of money to participate in pool coverage anywhere the president goes. Two of their employers (AP and Bloomberg) have assigned seats on Air Force One, while the AP is given the privilege of starting each daily briefing and deciding when the briefing ends.
The wires, TV networks, and large papers (such as the Post, Times, and Mail) already dominate what few opportunities there are for reporters to question the president and his aides. They get the most face time with officials by virtue of their participation in travel pool coverage. They get handed exclusives of far greater import than a White House wedding on a daily basis.
Those of us at smaller outlets (such as your humble correspondent) have to make do with what’s left over, and have long gotten used to the indignity of seeing competitors handed information we may have asked about days or weeks before.
That sort of strategic engagement with large outlets is, of course, well within the White House’s purview. Is it fair? Not even close. But it is how things have always worked.
Getting scooped is never fun. But equating being kept out of a private family event with the White House keeping you from being there to do what those heroic journalists did on those dark days in 1963 and 1981 is ridiculous and absurd.