A once revered tradition that has been a fixture of White House news coverage for many years has been suspended. From now until at least the end of 2008, "pool reports" will go only to those journalists traveling with the president, not to the entire White House press corps.
The White House Correspondents' Association board, an elected group that represents reporters and photographers who cover the presidency, announced the new policy yesterday—and it quickly divided the WHCA's constituents. Some say fairness demands that only news organizations which actually travel should get access to the pool reports, which are written and E-mailed by print reporters who take turns in the president's entourage when the larger press corps is too large and unwieldy to be kept close. Others say the limits on access to the pool reports are antithetical to the free flow of information, reduce collegiality within the press corps, and may deprive historians of important information if the pool reports aren't preserved as they are now.
In a larger sense, the change reflects a more fundamental transformation in White House coverage.
It's common for a president in his eighth year to generate less news as his influence fades. As a result, news organizations usually scale back their travels with him.
But this year, with soaring airline fuel costs, presidential travel is more expensive than ever. And with budgets under pressure, fewer news organizations are signing up for road trips. This tends to pit the larger and richer organizations against the smaller and less affluent ones on questions of how much to pay for travel, how large a plane to charter for the larger press corps, what kind of food and other services to provide, and, increasingly, whether to charter a plane at all. Some reporters are concerned that White House coverage eventually will be left to only the richer news outlets.
Another factor is the relative lack of accessibility of President Bush and his senior staff.
In the past, presidents frequently would visit the "pool" reporters on Air Force One and answer their questions, providing information disseminated though the pool reports. Bush rarely does this, though, which makes some reporters less interested in tagging along with him on trips.
Also in the past, senior presidential advisers would spend time giving interviews, having dinner, or otherwise building relationships with the journalists on the road. That, too, is rarer now.
Of course, all this may change with the inauguration of a new president in January. Then all these battles will probably be fought again.
The new WHCA policy was announced in a statement from ABC News's Ann Compton, the president of the board, and the Associated Press's Jennifer Loven, the incoming president who takes over later this summer.
—Kenneth T. Walsh