Steven Portnoy, White House Correspondents’ Association President:
For nearly a century, the story of the American presidency has been written through the eyes of the “press pool,” the small team of writers, photographers and technicians assigned each day to cover the commander-in-chief on behalf of the broader corps of correspondents.
The WHCA’s resident historian, George Condon, notes that poolers have been accompanying presidents on their personal travel since Franklin Roosevelt’s era. Through the uncertainty of World War II, three wire service reporters joined FDR on his train down to Warm Springs, Georgia, where the president received therapy for his paralysis. They were with him when he died there.
Poolers have been traveling with presidents since FDR, on their vacations as well as on official trips.
This system is mutually beneficial, for presidents and the press corps.
The pool’s proximity to the president provides a means for him to quickly summon a representative segment of the press and speak to the entire world whenever he chooses about a matter of national or global significance, such as a North Korean missile launch or a mass shooting.
The written accounts provided by the pool, shared with all members of the press corps, along with the images, footage and audio available to wire service subscribers and the partners of television and radio networks, provide a daily record of the presidency that forever lives in the archives of news organizations. After their daily use, pool notes, photos and footage become permanent fodder for authors, historians and documentarians.
Crafting that daily record is a duty that requires 13 journalists to be on assignment and away from their families on weekends and holidays, to serve on the watch from call time to “lid,” the official notice from aides that the president is not going to be seen in public for the rest of the day.
This duty can involve long shifts and short turnarounds, vast stretches of boredom, physical exertion when having to run with luggage and gear, restrictions on personal privileges such as bathroom breaks and meals, and sitting for hours in passenger vans.
As arduous and taxing as it can be, pool duty is an essential element of the work of White House correspondents because one never knows when the world will need good information about precisely where the president of the United States is and what he is doing at any moment.
Poolers were in the motorcade when JFK was shot during a parade. They were watching when, after a speech to trade unions, an attempt was made on Ronald Reagan’s life. And they helped write the history of 9/11 when George W. Bush was evacuated to two military bases following a visit to an elementary school.
None of those incidents were predicted by reporters or presidential aides in advance — all were covered by poolers who expected just another normal day. The material they produced for posterity was used immediately as proof of the continuity and strength of the American government, and later as evidence in investigations into the threats posed against the president.
For generations, news organizations and presidents of both parties have agreed that not having that material available as needed would be unthinkable.
In a moment of crisis, not having solid, dependable information on the whereabouts or condition of the president would risk national security and global stability by raising doubts about the American command and control structure. It would spark conspiracy theories.
The American public must never come to depend on a president’s aides alone to provide the world with information on his activities, or for images of the man when he is in public. The daily coverage of the president provided by the independent press is a uniquely American tradition, a solemn obligation that news organizations undertake at their own expense.
It is a function that the press performs on the public’s behalf every day of every year, any place on the planet, whenever the president is outside his residence.
It is a tradition that we reporters take most seriously, and it is one that must never be broken.