President-elect Donald Trump didn’t inform the media that he was going to a steakhouse with his family on Tuesday. This sparked a backlash from journalists, with 16 press associations sending an open letter to Trump imploring him to respect the tradition of allowing a press pool to cover the president’s movements, which dates back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
This may seem on its face like a stupid issue for journalists to fret about—so what if reporters didn’t get to see whether or not Trump puts ketchup on his T-bone—but it’s important.
This isn’t about an entitled press corps needing our precious access to the soon to be president at all times, even if it means invading his private life. It’s about keeping the American public informed at all times when a disaster could strike at any time.
A major national crisis—a terrorist attack, an assassination attempt, an international coup, or military conflict—can happen at literally any moment. Historically, the press pool has always been on hand to attempt to document the president’s immediate reaction or state in moments of crisis. This is not because we’re a bunch of prying ninnies, but because it’s important in our Democracy for the public to have access to this information.
The pool was with the president when John F. Kennedy was killed and when Ronald Reagan were shot. The pool was with George W. Bush when the Sept. 11 attacks happened, which is why we know that he kept reading My Pet Goat to schoolchildren after learning of the attack, but also why the press was at that school to record and broadcast his initial public response to the American people.
In this video, PBS NewsHour host Judy Woodruff describes what it was like to be in the press pool in 1981 when President Reagan was shot and, in so doing, explains the utility of having journalists around no matter how small a presidential event seems like it may be.
“It started out very routine,” she described. “It was NBC’s turn to be in the pool that day, which means you ride in the motorcade to the event. … It was not considered a big news day, but you go, you follow, and we went and we heard him speak.” When Reagan exited the Washington Hilton after giving a speech to a labor group, he was shot and the press was there to record it and to let the country know what was going on.
Here, from the Associated Press, is basically how the press pool works:
Every president and president-elect in recent memory has traveled with a pool of journalists when leaving the White House grounds. News organizations take turns serving in the small group, paying their way and sharing the material collected in the pool with the larger press corps.
The White House depends on having journalists nearby at all times to relay the president’s first comments on breaking news.
Traditionally, when the president-elect or the president’s staff issues a “lid” to the press pool, that is the signal that he will not be leaving into the world for the rest of the day and that the rotating cast of traveling press that makes up his pool can call it a night. This was done on Tuesday evening, but then Trump decided to go to the 21 Club without anyone in his staff letting reporters know about it. The press found out where he was when somebody tweeted a photo from the restaurant.
Again, this is not about an invasion of privacy. Presidents, presidential candidates, and president-elects can dictate what part of their private lives are “off the record” and thus not to be photographed or reported on unless a news emergency happens. For example, when he was campaigning for president, then-Sen. Obama made his workouts off the record in his “protective pool.” As Reuters noted in 2008, there’s even protocol for when the figure in question wants to have a private dinner:
Another example of this protective coverage that rarely produces newsworthy pictures is when the president (or in this case the senator) goes out to a dinner at a restaurant or private home and the White House or presidential campaign media pool sit in a van outside for hours at night while our subject is inside enjoying his meal. A good suggestion for those wanting to experience this hurry-up-and-wait existence—be sure to bring an iPod and/or a good book!
After his election but before his inauguration, then-President-elect Obama did once slip past the “protective pool” in a similar way to which Trump just did, taking his daughters to a water park in Honolulu. When the press was eventually allowed to catch up with Obama, though, he offered to buy them shaved ice. Members of Trump’s press entourage, on the other hand, reportedly had their view of the restaurant blocked by a dumpster when they discovered where he had gone.
As much as Trump and his supporters might hate the press, this should be a bipartisan issue. It’s also important for the press to have representatives near the president in less dramatic moments. For example, President-elect Trump often criticized President Obama for allegedly golfing too much. Trump wouldn’t have had the information to make that critique had there been no press pool there to document it. A similar example is when Hillary Clinton fell sick and appeared to nearly collapse at the 9/11 ceremony this year. Conservatives were at the time, correctly, furious at the Clinton campaign for failing to keep the press in the loop when Clinton left the memorial, leaving the footage of Clinton nearly fainting to be randomly captured by a bystander. The site Breitbart, which was intrinsically connected to the Trump campaign, breathlessly reported on how the press was being denied access at the time. “Ed Henry is reporting that Hillary Clinton’s campaign is purposefully keeping reporters in the dark,” read one of several Breitbart updates on what was happening. Lack of information can also help fuel conspiracy theories—there were several surrounding Clinton’s health at this time, when in actuality she just had pneumonia.
Trump’s spokeswoman Hope Hicks said that she had not intended to mislead the press when she called a lid on the day and said that the Trump team was working to set up a protective pool in the near future. According to the Wall Street Journal, Hicks told a pool reporter that reporters will have “all of the access that they have ever had under any president.”
In 2012, Mitt Romney started traveling with a protective pool in August while he was still campaigning. Secretary Clinton also had her own pool following her around during the campaign. Candidate Trump did not.