NEW YORK ― More than a dozen press advocacy organizations urged President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday to allow a “protective pool” of reporters to follow him outside Trump Tower and report on his whereabouts for the broader press corps ― and, most importantly, the public.
“We respectfully ask you to instill a spirit of openness and transparency in your administration in many ways but first and foremost via the press pool,” read the letter signed by heads of 15 groups, including the National Press Club, Committee to Protect Journalists and Society of Professional Journalists.
Trump’s restrictions and repeated attacks on the press during the 2016 campaign have heightened fears that his White House won’t provide levels of access reporters are accustomed to and which they feel are necessary to do their jobs.
Last week, Trump broke precedent by not allowing a small rotating group of journalists, known as a protective pool, to travel with him on his first post-election trip to Washington. On Tuesday, the president-elect and his family went to Manhattan’s 21 Club for dinner after the press had been informed he would not be leaving Trump Tower that night.
Some might shrug off journalists’ concerns as whining, but as several pointed out on Twitter, the issue is not just about the press’ right to know, but the public’s.
The protective pool has served a vital function for decades in bearing witness to mundane events ― like the president or president-elect heading to dinner ― and historically consequential moments. Pool reporters were in the motorcade during President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, were nearby during the attempt on President Ronald Regan’s life and aboard Air Force One following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Journalism advocacy groups push for such access, regardless of party, so that an independent press can cover events rather than the public relying solely on the government’s account.
“The idea of a press pool that covers all of the president’s movements is one that dates back to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration,” the letter read. “Every president of both parties has treated this important tradition with respect. The role of the press pool is critically important to our country, whose citizens depend on and deserve to know what the president is doing. This isn’t about access for the press itself, it’s about access for Americans in diverse communities across the country. Your constituents receive information from a variety of platforms to learn about what our president is doing.”
There’s often a misconception that journalists in a protective pool would disrupt the president or president-elect’s visit and a legitimate belief that everyone ― even the soon-to-be most powerful person in the world ― is entitled to a private meal with his family without being badgered by reporters.
But reporters aren’t seeking access to loom over Trump’s shoulder to see how he likes his steak cooked. They’re not angling for an invite to sit at the table. They just want to be aware of when the president-elect is traveling.
If the pool had been informed Trump was heading to the 21 Club, a small group of reporters would travel with the motorcade and file a dispatch to notify the press corps where he’d gone. They would likely sit in a van outside or nearby restaurant until Trump left and then file another dispatch on his departure. They may get additional details from the transition team, such as who attended the dinner, and report that back to the press corps. They may get to ask a question or two as the president-elect departs or be on hand if he wants to make a statement.
It’s not a glamorous assignment, but one most journalists consider necessary to comprehensively cover the presidency.
Jeff Mason, a Reuters correspondent and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, said in a separate statement Wednesday that it was “unacceptable” for the next president “to travel without a regular pool to record his movements and inform the public about his whereabouts.”
Mason said he was encouraged that the Trump team has said it would allow for a protective pool after moving into the White House, but similarly urged the president-elect to do so now.
During the 2016 campaign, journalists showed little appetite for collective action against the Trump campaign’s unprecedented restrictions, from enforcing a “press pen” at events to operating a media blacklist. So it’s not surprising the Trump transition team wouldn’t abide by the norms of press access.
Thomas Burr, the president of the National Press Club, said in an email that it’s necessary for the press to band together now.
“Journalists have to stand up for each other now more than ever,” Burr said. “This isn’t about the press but about access for the American people, for history and our democracy.”
The full letter is below: