White House threat to exclude reporter provides free-press reminder

Friday, April 29, 2011

White House rules regarding “press pools” — situations where a small group of reporters fill in for the entire presidential press corps — have caused an unnecessary flap involving the San Francisco Chronicle, but also raise First Amendment issues in attempting to distinguish the press from every other citizen.

The dispute revolves around a protest during a President Barack Obama fundraiser that was filmed by the newspaper’s correspondent, but it’s not really the protest that’s at the heart of it. The Chronicle reported today that the White House had threatened to ban the newspaper from pooled coverage of its events in the Bay Area because video of the interruption was taken by a “print pool” correspondent for the newspaper.

Under long-established pool guidelines, print reporters are not permitted to be video photographers also. But those rules were created in an era when lines between the two types of journalists were clearer.

Today, when reporters and non-journalists alike have smart phones that can take still photos and video — and can post those to the Web effectively as news reports if they wish — there’s no longer any reason to hold non-TV correspondents to such arcane rules.

And from a First Amendment standpoint, there’s no reason to continue a “class designation” for journalists that’s different from those that apply to regular citizens. The “free press” has no rights that aren’t available to all of us — journalists just regularly work at reporting news as a profession.

Of course, security needs don’t allow everyone to report closely on the president, but that applies to safety concerns, not the content of the news report. In effect, White House correspondents are there because all of us can’t be.

But when it comes to the content — and method — of the news report, there’s no need for such limitations. Presumably, any person at the fundraiser was free to use his or her mobile phone to take images or video of the protest. There’s no good reason to punish one particular journalist or publication for exercising that same freedom to gather and report the news that many of us are now are able to do.

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