Reporters Give Unique Peek Of White House White House pool reports have offered a revelatory, often hilarious glimpse into the private workings of the administration for years. NPR's White House correspondent, Don Gonyea, talks with other reporters about their time in the pool and the journalistic issues involved.
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Reporters Give Unique Peek Of White House

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Reporters Give Unique Peek Of White House

Reporters Give Unique Peek Of White House

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Five years ago, when I began covering the White House for NPR, I became acquainted with an institution called the White House Pool Report. Pool Reports are a way for reporters within the Press Corps to share basic information about the presidential events, both monumental and mundane.

Mr. KEN HERMAN (Reporter, Cox Newspapers): The first responsibility is to tell your colleagues what they would've seen if they could've seen what you have seen.

Ken Herman covers the White House for Cox Newspapers.

Mr. HERMAN: By the nature of the way we work, it is not possible for the entire Press Corps or the traveling Press Corps to attend every event the president participates in, be it a meeting in the Oval Office with a foreign leader, a session on the road with members of civil society, as it's called, or any number of events, so you are sort of the eyes and ears for the rest of the Press Corps and you share the information with them. It's a time-honored tradition around here.

GONYEA: And there's kind of an honor's code, right? What you get, you share.

Mr. HERMAN: Correct. The biggest sin is to see something in some pooler's newspaper story that was not in the pool report. That is a very bad thing. Frankly, I don't think I've ever seen it happen here, but that is not supposed to happen. You're supposed to share everything you see and hear.

GONYEA: Sometimes pool reports are very basic, just the facts, nothing else. Presidential motorcade, uneventful, no news, no color. But frequently they offer more, inside jokes intended only for other White House correspondents. Herman was the pool reporter in the spring of '05 when President Bush went to opening day for the Washington Nationals, marking the return of baseball to the nation's capital. His report that day included a playful headline employing a journalistic cliché describing the president as an area man who threw out the first pitch.

Mr. HERMAN: There's one comment in here that says, Bush, a right-winged hurler, is 2 and 0 in presidential elections. One of the wins was unsuccessfully appealed. It was his fourth appearance as presidential first-pitch thrower, previously having performed the honor at home openers in Milwaukee and St. Louis and Yankee Stadium and at Game 3 of the Yanks/Diamondbacks World Series. I made the note that the ball he used, and this was an interesting thing, was the same ball used for the last out in the last game at RFK before the old Senators move away, and the pitcher who threw that ball, the legendary Joe Grzenda, was on hand for it, and notes that Joe Grzenda is one of the all-time career leaders in (unintelligible) ratio in baseball, although it was pointed out - this is another thing. Whenever you write one of these, someone will tell you why you were wrong. I immediately got three emails reminding me of Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek, who I think actually surpasses Grzenda. So these are the things we get into, and it just sort of went on from there.

GONYEA: And White House reporters who weren't in the pool that day, were then free to use all or none of it in the stories they filed. On overseas trips, the reporter's turn in the press pool can often fill an entire day, as it did for Herman in Russia, where the president traveled this month for the G8 Summit.

Mr. HERMAN: We arrived. We flew from Germany to St. Petersburg, Russia on Air Force One, arrived there and went to the first event at the monument to the World War II defenders of then-Leningrad, a spectacular monument. We saw it very briefly and really didn't get to take in the whole beauty of it because it is such a large thing. And from there, we hustled to a building where he was going to meet with dissidents in Russia, supporters of democracy, various causes, and while he met with them, we sat in the pool hold. Frequently in the pool hold there is food for us.

I quickly point out that we pay for all the food we get. There's no tax dollars involved and these trips are very, very expensive to our news organizations. We got in there and I'm sitting there minding my own business, and you always have to say that before you get in trouble, and Don Gonyea of NPR comes up and says, hey, you'll have a phrase in your pool report you don't frequently have in there. And I said, oh, Don, what is that? And he said, the caviar in the pool hold. So I looked over and sure enough there was what appeared to me to be caviar.

I am a Twinkie loving American. I don't know caviar when I see it and - but NPR, if anyone would know caviar, it would be the fine people of NPR. So I put in the report - I'll read it to you. It says, first note of significance. This report will include a phrase that NPR's Don Gonyea says may never have appeared in a pool report: the caviar in the pool hold. Then we go into it, the motorcade arrived, we're sitting around, we're doing nothing, the president made a couple of comments and that's it.

And then we get back to the part about the (unintelligible) caviar at the end. It says, we are now in the pool hold. The caviar in the pool hold is, and then it says, you'll have to check with somebody with a more exotic palate than possessed by your pooler, and it went on from there. And then I immediately get accosted by Richard Wolf, a friend of ours who works for Newsweek, very erudite man from Great Britain, and, you know, I would say he's an expert. He says, Ken, that wasn't caviar. And he explains to me it might've been salmon eggs or fish eggs or cow eggs, I don't know what the heck he was talking about.

So then in the follow-up pool report I put that we've now been challenged on the caviar. So now we have pool reports about caviar, so we put that out. Then I get another inquiry from Olivier Knox(ph), who works for Agence France Presse, and who, you know, if anyone knows caviar more than NPR, it's going to be Agence France Presse. He says no, it is caviar, that any fish eggs is caviar. At that point, I decided to end the great caviar debate and we just left it hanging that way.

GONYEA: Also doing pool duty on that trip was Julie Mason, White House correspondent for the Houston Chronicle.

Ms. JULIE MASON (Reporter, Houston Chronicle): What people don't realize, a lot of this job is waiting around while the president does things, while the president has dinner, while the president rides his bike, and we can't be there so we wait in vans outside, and we catch up on our sleep. There's nothing else to do.

GONYEA: And the following pool report makes it clear that the caviar story is the exception. This too is from St. Petersburg, outside a spectacular palace built by a Russian Czar.

Ms. MASON: Pool Report No. 4, July 15, 2006. G8 social dinner. Pool sat in vans outside the dinner at Peterhof for more than four hours. No sign of Bush. Entire movement, during which nothing was seen nor said and bathrooms and sustenance were unavailable, was more than six hours. Julie Mason, Houston Chronicle.

GONYEA: We talked about your audience being your fellow White House correspondents, but when you write this, you know there's a much broader audience who's going to be reading.

Ms. MASON: Indeed, we get regular admonishments from the White House Correspondents Association to keep in mind that the pool reports, because of the wonders of email now and the Internet, go everywhere. As soon we write them, they appear on certain blogs and they can be widely misinterpreted because there's sort of an art form to some pool reporting and not every pool reporting lends itself to this, but there's a sort of archness, a tartness, there's fun and irreverence in it. It's not partisan, it's just sort of, you know, sort of tongue in cheek, but can be widely misinterpreted, and is by people who read something partisan into it and don't like it.

GONYEA: So what are your own personal guidelines. I mean, you've written some very funny pool reports. You've written some very just straight mundane ones.

Ms. MASON: It's just a gut thing. It's just an instinct. I've gotten tripped up a couple of times. Recently, there was an incident. I wrote what I thought was a completely innocuous pool report. It was kind of funny and several other reporters commented on it, and then it ended up on a blog, a number of blogs, and I got an avalanche of angry, outraged mail, and some of it was saying that I took cheap shots at the president and they were outraged that I would be irreverent when I was in the motorcade, and they felt that being in the motorcade was a privilege and that I should show more deference for the president, which seems to be a bit misplaced. But if people feel that way, it's hard to explain otherwise.

GONYEA: Do you have that pool report?

Ms. MASON: Yes, I do.

GONYEA: Tell us what you're talking about.

Ms. MASON: This was just when gas prices started to go sky high and it was the biggest story of the moment, and so the president went to give a speech about energy conservation. It's Pool Report Number 1, April 25, 2006.

President Bush rode a 14-vehicle motorcade there and back to the Marriott Wardman to talk to the Renewable Fuels Association about energy conservation and other topics. En route, the motorcade passed the Exxon station next to the Watergate where gas prices were $3.29, $3.39, and $3.49 a gallon. Just saying. Event was open press.

GONYEA: So what were you thinking there? The just saying is a little cheeky.

Ms. MASON: Just a little cheeky, but I don't know, it was early in the morning and it just - it didn't seem partisan or over the top. It just seemed sort of wink-wink to me. But it made a lot of people angry and I took it to heart. I internalized a little bit. I don't know if I would do it differently next time.

GONYEA: Cox Newspaper's Ken Herman sits on the board of the White House Correspondents Association, which is looking into a number of issues relating to pool reports.

Mr. HERMAN: One is who should get pool reports. There are those now who make the argument, why should a news organization that never spends the money to travel with the president - it is phenomenally expensive to travel with the president - why should a news organization who doesn't contribute and buy into that get the benefit of knowing what went on somewhere halfway around the world when they are not there? So far the consensus seems to be, we'll keep it as it is, that it's important for everyone to know this information and it shouldn't be something you have to buy into. But it is something up for discussion.

GONYEA: Herman mentions the high cost of traveling with the president. Overseas trips are particularly expensive, roughly $1,500 for each leg on a multi-nation trip, not to mention hotel and other expenses. Herman says the other question being looked at is how pool reports are distributed, noting that the email list includes many who are not in the White House Press Corps or even journalists. I asked him if there isn't some irony here with reporters whose job it is to get information out to the public being a little worried that what they're writing in pool reports is being read so widely.

Mr. HERMAN: Yeah, I guess it's because theoretically, this is just amongst ourselves, but we're kidding ourselves if we think it's just amongst ourselves. You know, you write differently for different audiences and different people. When I write for the newspapers I write for, it is a certain brand of writing and journalism where it is supposed to be devoid of my opinions about anything. The fact of most reporters is, we are, for want of a better word, hostile towards everyone we cover. I don't think it's partisan driven. We are skeptical, we are cynical, we are cranky, we are obnoxious, and it's equal opportunity. I was not around here when Clinton was president, but I'm aware there was a lot of criticism that people were just out to get him, and it's not the right motive to be out to get the people you cover, but it is the right motive to be skeptical about the people you cover.

And it's not gallows' humor, but it's something like that about what we do and how we do it, because what we do is a strange and mystical thing at times. And in the pool reports, it's a different voice, but the point we're wrestling with is, maybe it can't be as different a voice as it's been because the whole world is watching.

GONYEA: To see some of the pool reports filed by Cox Newspapers' Ken Herman and the Houston Chronicle's Julie Mason, go to our Web page at This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Don Gonyea.

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