Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Obama Poolers: Bust a Move

Reading about some recent difficulties encountered by the press pool assigned to monitor President-elect Obama's doings in Hawaii leads me offer this advice: maybe next time the reporters need to bust a move.

As detailed here and here, on the day after Christmas, Obama left his rented Hawaii vacation house without warning to the group of photographers and reporters who were part of that day's "tight" or "protective" pool. He spent about an hour at this theme park with his daughters Malia and Sasha before the pool could be assembled (probably off of some fine beaches) and brought to the site.

The ditching of the press pool is certain to generate no perceptible measure of public outrage, but American history provides a litany of examples which illustrate why some members of the press ought to be in close proximity to the president whenever he travels.

While the ditching was troubling, I'm actually more concerned by a detail mentioned in passing in the pool report from Washington Post writer Philip Rucker. "Your pool was not allowed inside the park," Rucker reported. The pool reportedly spent about a half hour at the gates of the park before Obama emerged.

While any president (or president-elect) can "break the lid" and move faster than the pool can assemble, I can think of no reasonable explanation why the pool would not be allowed into an amusement park open to the general public. Of course, the pool would draw attention to Obama, but he and his Secret Service detail are not going to pass unnoticed anywhere these days. Indeed, per the Associated Press, tourists stopped the Obamas for snapshots.

I hope that there is no harbinger of the future in the fact that Obama's team thought the parking lot was adequate press access to his visit to an open theme park which can accomodate hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Does Mr. Obama expect to go to baseball games unaccompanied by his press pool? To the theater?

Poolers have one last-resort option when confronted with situations like the one in Oahu. While, for security reasons, one can't enter the pool willy-nilly, the pool is not a chain gang. Anyone can choose to leave. Unless I'm missing something, any of those in the pool could have handed in their pass and entered the park as an ordinary civilian. The Obama press staff would have probably freaked out. It's also not a risk-free move because anyone who pulls it may well be left behind for another movement or in the event of some kind of incident.

The decision is also more complicated for the newspaper, TV, and radio poolers, who are representing colleagues who might second guess the poolers' on-the-spot judgment. When I covered Senator Bob Dole's presidential campaign for ABC back in 1996, the producers from the major networks sometimes agreed to "protect" each other when campaign aides were frustrating our efforts to stay close to the candidate in public.

Tensions over that issue escalated, especially over the campaign's attempts to prevent the national networks from watching as local reporters attempted to interview Dole as he shook hands following speeches. When Dole visited the Eisenhower Museum in Abilene, Kan., (on August 9, 1996, according to this CNN story), a Dole campaign press aide tried to load me and my ABC pool crew into the motorcade while the former Senator was still perilously close to a local news crew and seemed to also be minutes away from shaking hands. I simply said we were staying put. The aide then attempted unsuccessfully to get the crew to ship out without me and the Secret Service to force us back in. Ultimately, we were told we were "out of the pool." The CBS crew was tracked down and saddled up into our slots in the motorcade. We made it back in the pool in the regular rotation.

The scramble to find a replacement crew reflected the fact that the campaign actually wants, even needs, a network camera along to record some of the pseudo-impromptu roadside stops that humanize a candidate.

The reasons for allowing the press to keep close watch on Obama when he's in public go beyond the obvious ones. Weird things happen out there on the road. (An example from the Dole era.) Sometimes tragic things happen not to the president, but others arround him, even in idyllic Hawaii. See here and here.

YouTube, cell-phone cameras and the like have made it less likely that some of these incidents would be comnpletely missed, but keeping a contingent of independent journalists in close proximity to the president still makes damn good sense. How this issue is handled will also be a measure of the transparency Obama insisted would be a hallmark of his presidency.

15 comments:

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FDD said...

Naaaah, you still haven't convinced me that we (that would be the media) need to keep the president within constant sight every minute he tries to take a swim or spend time with his kids.

Yes, things can happen, both tragic and funny. And so what? I mean, first of all, is the public/world better off for having that clip of Bob Dole taking a nosedive off that platform? (And let me point out, that was a fair-game campaign event, anyway. It was not Dole trying to enjoy some free time with his kids before taking on the most demanding job in the world.

So give Obama and his kids (and, yes, their Secret Service detail) a little room. In the extremely remote chance of something (truly) newsworthy happens, the press can still swarm in a minute later and do what we do best. Shoot the wounded.

Josh said...

The post wasn't really intended primarily as an argument for the omnipresence of the press, but as some advice on how these things could be handled on the press side going forward.

I heeded some advice and deliberately left out some of the more provocative examples that could be cited to underscore the importance of the pool coverage.

If Obama wants to attend private parties, lunches, dinners, etc. with his kids and without the press, that's fine with me. I just don't see the point in keeping the press at bay while the general public is free to mingle (or something more ominous).

On the other hand, if you think Obama should be free to pop over to Ford's Theater any time and leave his pool in the street while he takes in a show, well, what could possibly go wrong?

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