Op-Ed: Into the protective pool

  • By Bob Franken
  • Thursday, November 17, 2016 9:15am
  • Opinion

I normally don’t like to write about the problems we in the media have with politicians. Being a longtime reporter-commentator, I can’t possibly be unbiased, or even appear to be. Besides, I think we have a tendency to publicly spend too much time focusing on and whining about our issues. And now, we really deserve our bad reputation, particularly in our coverage of the Donald Trump phenomenon, although not for the reason you think we dropped the ball.

First of all, Trump and his people and Hillary and hers made the job of covering them exceedingly difficult, because they don’t appreciate the fact that we’re not supposed to be sycophantic messengers who simply cover them the way they want to be covered. Both the Clintonistas and the Trumpets went out of their way to stick it to us, denying access in a number of subtle ways — or in Donald Trump’s case, not-so-subtle ways. He has perfected the art of media bashing and maintained a longstanding tradition of trashing journalists; in fact, he’s dumped the whole Trumpster Dumpster on colleagues, coming close to inviting violent reprisals for the stories that don’t feed the bottomless pit of his ego. He’s also totally shut out journalists and whole organizations when they do stories that displease him.

Both of them, Clinton and Trump, also have jammed it to us in another way, and it’s a subtle one that blocks the job of best informing the public about their goings-on minute by minute: They did away with so-called protective pools. Protective pools are collections of reporters and camerapeople who are taken under the Secret Service umbrella that shields the candidate/president-elect/president. The news organizations rotate one member each day, typically, from various media — print, TV, radio. The few then represent everybody and are expected to file for all from their privileged vantage point within the bubble. It’s the orderly alternative to the normal free-for-all.

A big reason for having these, to be honest, is to allow close access in case the principal is harmed — or worse. History must be protected, and so must everyone’s right to know. Hillary Clinton was not allowing a protective pool to accompany her on Sept. 11, when she buckled at a memorial service. The result was a news vacuum, which was filled with all kinds of rumors.

Donald Trump and his people are only now pledging to finally establish protective pools, without being specific, but he didn’t allow them a place in his plane as he made his historic first visit to the White House. It seems to be a continuing part of his intense effort to put the press in its place, to control the coverage.

To be blunt, the place of the press is in the face of the public official we are covering. Rather than being intimidated by Trump or anyone else, we need to be intensely skeptical. Rather than being finessed because Trump was a ratings magnet that news organizations groveled to get access to, we should be total pains. It is not our job to be liked; it is our job to report the facts and context. If the politician — any politician — doesn’t like it, tough patootey (I hope my language isn’t too strong).

America needs that kind of coverage. If President Donald Trump continues to pursue his vendetta against media, democracy — which relies on an informed electorate — will be irretrievably harmed. As it is, we didn’t do that aggressive watchdog job well enough during the campaign.

We also were blind to the millions of common citizens who elected him. We have gotten too cozy with the establishment figures, playing their phony sophistication games, pretending we are smarter than everyone else. We need to get our hands dirty as we clean up our act. We also need the means to keep our citizens properly informed. Protective pools are just one of the tools that help us do that.

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