WASHINGTON — When Vice President Mike Pence traveled to an event in Florida on Wednesday, he was not accompanied on his plane by a member of the White House press corps, as is typically the case.
Instead, seated on Air Force Two in a space normally reserved for a White House reporter was the vice president for communications at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has helped the Trump administration fill jobs throughout the government and influenced policy decisions.
The foundation official, Robert B. Bluey, is also the executive editor of The Daily Signal, a news site run by the foundation to offer conservative commentary and analysis.
On Wednesday, he joined Mr. Pence, who spoke at a “Faith in America” event in Clearwater. Mr. Bluey filled the role of the pool reporter, one of the journalists who travel with the president or the vice president, filing reports on their movements and activities throughout the day, and providing the rest of the White House press corps with a first cut of any news of the day.
The White House has increasingly nurtured relationships with conservative news outlets, including One America News Network, an organization that has been granted special permission to send a reporter to the briefing room despite restrictions put in effect by the White House Correspondents’ Association to keep reporters safe during the coronavirus pandemic. And the administration has long elevated niche outlets that cover it more favorably, while the president has systematically cast doubt on mainstream news organizations by referring to them as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.”
Wednesday was not the first time someone representing The Daily Signal served as a pool reporter. In 2017, the website’s White House correspondent, Fred Lucas, was the first journalist from the organization to participate in White House pool duties.
But Mr. Bluey, a communications professional, is not listed as a reporter, and he does not cover the White House. In an email on Wednesday, Mr. Bluey said he started working in journalism in 1996 and helped create The Daily Signal in 2014. The site had been part of the White House Correspondents’ Association since 2016, he said.
“Since our founding, I’ve insisted our reporters maintain strong editorial standards and practices to ensure our credibility as a news outlet,” he said.
When The Washington Post raised questions in the past about Mr. Lucas’s participation in pool duties, given his association with an ideologically driven think tank, Mr. Bluey responded at length online, defending his colleague. There was nothing openly partisan about Mr. Bluey’s pool reports on Wednesday, which consisted mostly of quotes from Mr. Pence’s speech and brief observations about how an enthusiastic crowd responded.
But how Mr. Bluey ended up on Air Force Two on Wednesday is as much a story about covering the Trump administration during the pandemic as it is about partisanship in the news media. There is often a clamor to cover the Trump show and travel aboard Air Force One, where the president often walks to the back of the plane and sometimes breaks news to the small group of reporters traveling with him.
Filling seats to cover Mr. Pence, who does not make news by design, is often a tougher sell. And it has only become more difficult to find reporters willing to travel with him when it also means taking on a greater risk of contracting the coronavirus.
Multiple members of the White House press corps who have been reporting from the White House or traveling with the president have tested positive for the virus. The White House Correspondents’ Association put out a call for reporters earlier in the week seeking a volunteer to cover Mr. Pence’s day trip to Florida as part of the pool. When the organization was unable to fill the slot, Mr. Pence’s office chose the print pooler instead, according to someone familiar with the process. The correspondents’ association declined to comment.
“The office of the vice president has been working with local reporters and specialty outlets to ensure that all outlets have the ability and access to cover the vice president’s events,” said Katie Miller, Mr. Pence’s communications director. She added, “Are you worried about conservative bias in the media?”