Published January 14, 2015
The White House says a San Francisco Chronicle reporter broke the rules when she put down her pen and picked up a video camera to film a protest. The newspaper says the Obama administration needs to join the 21st century.
The conflict hit the newspaper's front page Friday with a story about coverage of the protest during President Barack Obama's speech last week at a private fundraiser.
It highlights the perils that arise when traditional arrangements between news organizations and politicians meet the modern reality that anyone with a smartphone can become a video journalist.
Reporter Carla Marinucci had White House permission to cover the fundraiser as a so-called "pool" reporter, meaning she could attend as long as she shared her notes with the White House to distribute to other reporters.
Pool reporting is a common arrangement among media organizations and in-demand politicians to avoid overcrowding of smaller events.
Marinucci was covering the event when about a half-dozen protesters who paid a combined $76,000 to attend the breakfast broke into a song chastising Obama for the government's treatment of Pfc. Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst suspected of illegally passing government secrets to the WikiLeaks website.
"We paid our dues, where's our change?" the protesters sang.
Although a print reporter, Marinucci is seldom seen without a small video recorder while covering politicians. She captured video of the protest, which was posted with her written story in the online edition of the Chronicle and on its politics blog.
White House officials say that breached the terms of her access, which stated Marinucci was to provide a print-only report.
"The San Francisco Chronicle violated the coverage rules that they -- and every other media outlet -- agreed to as part of joining the press pool for that event," White House press secretary Jay Carney said. "If they thought the rules were too restrictive they should have raised that at the beginning."
Editor Ward Bushee said in the Chronicle's story Friday that the paper acted within its rights to cover the newsworthy incident.
He also said White House officials in off-the-record conversations Thursday threatened to bar Marinucci from pool coverage of future presidential appearances. He added that the officials, whom Bushee did not name, threatened to freeze out Chronicle and other Hearst Newspaper chain reporters if they reported on the threat against Marinucci.
"We expect our reporters to use the reporting tools they have to cover the news, and Carla did," Bushee said in the Chronicle story. The White House rule against print reporters shooting and posting video is "objectionable and just is not in sync with how reporters are doing their jobs these days." he said.
After Josh Earnest, another White House spokesman, told the Politico website that officials had not made such threats, Carney said in a statement Friday that "no reporters have been banned from covering future presidential events."
"The White House of course would have no problem including any reporter who follows the rules in pool-only events," he said.
The White House should rethink those rules in an era when few reporters limit their coverage to just one medium, and when several other attendees not with the media were taking their own video of the protest, Bushee said.
The protesters' own footage ended up appearing on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."
The fundraiser came a day after Obama appeared at the Palo Alto headquarters of Facebook, praising the social media giant for enabling a more open, two-way conversation between citizens and politicians. The president said he was interested in holding the event, billed as a social media town hall, because young people especially were now getting their information through a range of different media.
Dan Gillmor, a media critic and head of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, said the White House needs to update the rules for its pool reports to match the realities of 21stcentury reporting.
But he also said newspapers should do more to embrace the new reality that amateurs are capable of providing their own records of events, showing a wider range of perspectives. For example, he said the Chronicle could focus more on providing a platform for amateur video, which would expand the definition of the press pool to anyone with a video camera.
"Neither the White House nor the journalism organization in this case are showing much imagination about what's possible in a world with democratized media creation and access," Gillmor said.