Press pool reports—those from-the-scene dispatches circulated by pool journalists to a larger ring of media outlets—have always been a subtle, deadpan art. It can be a tedious job to cover the White House, receiving canned remarks from flacks and observing the endless procession of undersecretaries and dignitaries. In the past, the reports usually exuded a cheerful due diligence, a gameness to do mundane work for the good of the country and hopefully entertain fellow journalists, too. Here’s the FLOTUS (first lady of the United States) pool describing a meeting between Michelle Obama and some school children: “At 10:57 a.m., FLOTUS came into the exhibit space. She was shown some books, including Big Noisy Book [of] Animals.” Such notes also have an understated wryness: Surely an adult watching one of the planet’s most powerful women being presented with Big Noisy Book of Animals by 6-year-olds is tempted to crack a smile. (Just as surely, no one unimpelled by the protocols of the job actually cares when President Clinton arrived at the golf course.) The playful poker face of the pool reporter blends idealism and irony, and the fact of access adds just a tinge of delight.
But Donald Trump has made the press pool report feel like a new genre. Wary of “normalizing” the president-elect, yet condemned to document the perturbingly normal processes by which he is coming into power, journalists seem to have gone into full dissociative mode. “Eric Trump walked into the lobby at 8:56 and smiled at the cameras, but did not speak to your pool before boarding an escalator,” begins one dispatch by Jennie Matthew of AFP. I hear it uttered in a shell-shocked monotone, with only the surreal precision of “8:56” keeping a silent scream at bay. The report continues: “Otherwise we spotted Anthony Scaramucci in the elevator at 9:25am.” Maybe (probably) I’m projecting here, but the numb listlessness of that “otherwise” breaks my heart.
The press has been urged not to normalize Trump, to sustain a tone of scandalized dismay whenever we write about him. But while the president-elect’s vision for the country—in which federal agencies answer to officials who condemn their missions, tweets do foreign policy work, and white supremacy reigns—is bonkers, the day-to-day movements of his transition team at Trump Tower are not. So the difficulty of reflecting both realities at once, the historically bad and the mundane, has led to some observations that sound as wan and make-believe, in their ordinariness, as light from a long dead star. To my ear, this often shades into funny nihilism; why not tell us about Trump campaign digital director Brad Parscale’s “large winter hat”? Or perhaps it’s denial: When Anita Kumar of the Guardian writes that “Shirley Husar, a Republican delegate from Pasadena and a member of the group Urban Game Changer, spoke briefly to the pool after a meeting with Omarosa,” her painstakingly neutral manner, her commitment to procedure, evokes Ben Winters’ main character in The Last Policeman, which follows a detective doggedly solving small crimes as society unravels in anticipation of an asteroid that will soon obliterate the earth.
In the Trump era, the mild, helpful tongue of the anonymous press pool must repeatedly narrate its own humiliation. A journalist covering PEOTUS’s transportation to and from a rally on Thursday night observed, “As pool was departing the arena, one woman called out ‘There goes the fake news.’ ” Elsewhere, “A group of older ladies initially waved at the motorcade and then held up their middle fingers. It was unclear who it was directed at though our van is marked with a sign that says Press 1.” At the event itself, “There are sporadic chants of ‘CNN sucks’ before Trump takes the stage, although an older man standing next to the press pen assures us, ‘We don’t really mean it.’ ” (Poignant.) Trump, who famously hates the mainstream media, snubs his pool in smaller ways too. “Transition aide tells us that PEOTUS had a schedule to keep and has left airport without the pool,” one report states with typical detachment. Journalists had been awaiting Trump’s plane for hours.
On it goes: a bihourly drip that seems always on the verge of unmasking pool members’ mounting horror. Consider the existential dread (plausibly) contained in the four syllables that button up this comment: “Peter Thiel entered Trump Tower at 4:07, wearing a grey suit and open-collared white shirt. He did not stop.” Other remarks have a whistling-before-the-firing-squad flippancy. “Good morning from the golden tower of American democracy,” begins reporter Lois Beckett’s first salvo from Dec. 16.
Once upon a time, pool communications meant the system was working. They meant that leaders were cooperating and that transparency prevailed, no matter how banal the particular tidings. But now, the pool report has begun to feel like a parody, the contrivance of a more innocent politics applied to a nuclear fiasco. There’s a sense of helpless complicity, Trump’s media adversaries (as he’s cast them) reduced to reciting arrivals and departures like the smartboard at a bus depot, obediently noting that “Gary Cohn came out of the elevator and went up the escalator at 8:49 am”—the press pool members as Echo, endlessly mouthing the words of Narcissus, unable to express their own hearts.