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The White House pool, the Chicago Bulls, the acrobat on the chair and the deficit

If (heaven forfend) you’d spent your adult life elbow-to-elbow with a gaggle of newspaper reporters, you’d know, as I do, that many of them are much better writers than their stories in the paper show.

The rules and unwritten norms of so-called objective journalism all-but-require reporters to squeeze what they have learned during their day’s reporting and what they know from their years on the beat through a sausage grinder of the formula for acceptable reportage (an example of the permissible formula: 1. obvious but important fact, 2. boring attribution, 3. predictable quote from expert explaining fact, 4. half-truth from opposing point of view, in the name of balance, treated with more respect than it deserves, in the name of fairness, 5. “nut graf” summarizing the point of the story, 6. to-be-sure graf hinting that the situation described in the nut graf isn’t really as common or important as the rest of the story is going to imply, 7. inadequate dose of historical background or other context that is boring to the reader who already knows it but inadequate for the reader who doesn’t, 8., 9, 10. less important fact, even less important fact, etc. 11. anecdotal example of caricatured “real-person” affected by the fact, 12. kicker quote …).

There are certainly variations on the formula, and a great deal of energy may be spent deciding which variation is best for a particular story. But all variations, because they are all formuli and because they are intended as much to give cover for what the reporter thinks than they are to making the story interesting, informative, honest or entertaining, tend to ensure that the story will be none of those things.

When writing outside the formula, many reporters are often smart, funny, irreverent, observant, incisive, graceful writers. But this writing is usually circulated only amongst themselves. This is a small tragedy and part of the price we pay for the journalistic objectivity religion, of which I am no longer an adherent.

All of this rant comes to mind (it often comes to my mind, but on this occasion) upon reading a brief,  graceful and funny White House Pool report by Brad Haynes of the Wall Street Journal of Pres. Obama’s attendance Friday night at a basketball game between Obama’s previous-hometown Chicago Bulls and his new-hometown Washington Wizards.

The White House Pool report, in case you are unfamiliar, comes about this way: It isn’t practical to bring the entire White House press corps everywhere the president goes (such as this basketball game) but a representative of each major MSM medium (print, radio, TV) generally does go, in case anything truly newsworthy happens. It usually doesn’t. But the designated poolster writes, and circulates to his colleagues, what he sees and hears for use by any of them.

The pool report is not intended for publication (although it is so widely circulated that distinction loses some meaning) but is often written in a wry, caustic, hype-weary voice that journalists often use among themselves. The pool report is often a better read, if less “newsworthy,” than the news report.

(If you want more on the tradition and quirks of the pool report, and a couple of examples of poolsters going much further than the example below to entertain their colleagues, see this excellent 2006 report on pool reports by MPR’s Don Gonyea (audio included), which also includes a couple of much funnier examples of poolster writing. (I particularly enjoyed Cox Newspapers’ Ken Herman’s April 2005 pool report of then-Pres. Bush throwing out the first pitch at a Washington Nationals game. (Excerpt: “Bush, a right-winged hurler, is 2-0 in presidential elections.”)

So, to get back to what set me off, the very pool report, by Haynes of the WSJ, from halftime of Friday night’s NBA game (there was an earlier report written at the end of the first quarter) managed a poetical description of the halftime show (almost a haiku, although several syllables too long), and a witty comparison, at the end, of sports fans hoping for comeback of their team, and Obama’s budget, hoping for a comeback of the economy. It read, in full:

“With 45 seconds left in the first half, the president left his courtside seat for the owner’s box, two dozen rows behind the team benches. Throughout halftime, the section in front of the suite stood with their backs to the floor, oblivious to the halftime act. At midcourt a man balanced on one leg of a chair balanced on a bottle balanced on a table, while smooth jazz filled the arena.

WH staff including David Axelrod, Jon Favreau and Reggie Love are seated near the president’s courtside vantage, six rows behind the basket.

After two quarters the Bulls had cut the deficit to 45-49, with optimistic Chicago fans projecting a surplus by the end of the fourth quarter.”

I’d like to see that acrobat. And I’d like to see the little play on words at the end in the paper, while there still is a paper.

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