Save the press from the White House censors

by and
The unveiling of the new Brady Briefing Room on July 11, 2007. Photo credit: Eric Draper

At Sunlight, we pride ourselves on promoting transparency and journalism through technology. So when we read Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi’s excellent but disturbing story about White House flacks taking it upon themselves to edit journalists’ pool reports before they are distributed to the press corps, we decided that the White House reporters need to find a new publisher.

As much as people love to hate the White House press corps, it’s important to understand that the “pool reports” they produce play an important role in keeping the public informed — the the occupant of the White House accessible.

“Pool reports” have nothing to do with sunshine or chlorine, but represent an unusual feat of collaboration by a normally competitive press corps. They are the raw materials of a news story — quotes by newsmakers, quick word sketches of scenes, snippets of audio and video — gathered by a small group of reporters who follow the president into close quarters and serve as the eyes and ears of the larger press corps. The poolers, usually a couple of wire service reporters, a couple of print reporters, a radio reporter and a TV crew,  often collaborate for the sake of speed and accuracy and then shares its information with other reporters.

The information that the pool reporters provide can be very revealing. For instance, at Sunlight, we have begun adding pool reports from presidential fundraisers to the back end of our Political Party Time database, because they include lots of interesting and potentially important details such as the names of donors in attendance.

So we were uneasy to learn that some reporters have been pressured to alter their reports by the publisher, aka the White House. While some of the emendations and deletions (a presidential aide’s swoon, a politically charged Obama joke) might seem frivolous, what’s at issue here is precedent. This represents the peak of a slippery slope we don’t want to go down. And that’s why we think it’s time to for the reporters to begin putting out their own pool reports.

The practice of the White House disseminating the reports dates back to the paper era, when reporters obtained poolers’ notes from copies that White House press assistants placed in bins in the White House press room. Today’s technology offers an opportunity to liberate the pool reports. Below are a couple possible ways:

A public blog: Since, as Farhi’s piece notes, pool reports have become so widely disseminated as to be almost fully public, why not go all the way? Poolers could publish everything direct to the web. How about a site like That would eliminate the middleman and vastly increase transparency. The reports would go straight from the reporters’ notebooks (or cameras or recorders) to the World Wide Web.

A moderated group: Even if the White House Correspondents Association isn’t willing to go that far (there may be some legitimate security issues), it seems the Google Group route that the group has tried out presents a viable alternative. It’s possible to create a private, moderated group, though it would involve more work. We can appreciate the challenge for White House reporters, who mostly also have more-than-full-time jobs, and need to find someone to moderate an ever-changing list: People come and go from the White House press corps all the time. And pool reports come in at all hours (think about when the president is travels to other time zones)

But surely an organization that every year manages to pull off the intimate little gathering for 3,000 or so that has come to be known as NerdProm has the wherewithal to tackle the problem, especially with some help from civic-minded techs. And, as any 21st century public relations professional knows, services exist that help maintain and, when necessary, cull distribution lists. Yes they cost money but wouldn’t that be better use of WHCA dues than another course at the NerdProm?

In this year of White House Correspondents Association’s 100th birthday, it’s time to turn high-tech. Take advantage of the tools available to be your own publishers. The first draft of history will be more reliable for it.