Nearly 40 news organizations have accused the Obama administration of improperly controlling images of the president by limiting the access granted to independent photojournalists while allowing free rein by the White House’s own photographers.
In a letter and a meeting last week, the news outlets and journalism groups complained to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney about the practice, saying the White House has prevented an unvarnished view of government business, while encouraging officially sanctioned competition for private news organizations.
Limitations on photographers’ access to President Barack Obama create “a troubling precedent with a direct and adverse impact on the public’s ability to independently monitor and see what its government is doing,” charged the letter from the 38 organizations, including the White House Correspondents Association and the Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times.
The White House said it has limited access by photographers only as necessitated by logistics or a desire to preserve a zone of privacy for the president and his family. Carney noted that previous presidents, including George W. Bush, battled with the media over how much of their activity to put into the public domain.
Still, in an email response to questions, Carney said the White House is “working to address some of the concerns raised by photographers covering the White House.” He added: “We certainly do not believe that official photos released by the White House are a substitute for the work of independent journalists.”
The issue has been pushed to the forefront by the expanding role of the Internet and websites like Flickr and Twitter, which allow the White House to quickly share images of Obama, his family and his staff.
“Like every White House in the modern era,” Carney said, “we use the tools available to us to provide information and insight to the public about the President and his daily (activities), and that includes photographs taken by official White House photographers.”
But news photographers complained that Obama’s staff increasingly deems events “private” or locales too confined for photos, only to later release the administration’s own pictures of the events. They say that proves the events were never intended to be private in the first place.
The letter of protest to the White House called the practice an “unwarranted interference on legitimate news gathering activities,” adding: “You are, in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases.”
Obama’s availability to the media for photos has been an issue since the start of his administration. After Chief Justice John Roberts flubbed the oath of office in January 2009 – causing Obama to do the same – the do-over took place outside the view of video and still photographers.
Journalists objected that they should have been privy to that historic moment. Similar protests arose in August 2010, when Obama swam with daughter Sasha in the Gulf of Mexico, to demonstrate the water was safe following the gigantic BP oil spill. Though photographers and video crews flew from Washington for the moment, the president’s staff excluded them. The public saw only images transmitted by the White House.
In recent months, the White House press corps contends there has been no discernible reason for preventing photographers from capturing the president in a variety of settings: meeting with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, touring a prison where African slaves were held off the coast of Senegal or meeting with the young Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai.
“It’s the independent media who can give a true representation of what an event is,” said Doug Mills of the New York Times, who represents photographers in the White House Correspondents Association. “It’s not put through a filter. Otherwise it’s a total press release. We call it the West Wing Wire Service.”
Media representatives said they first approached Carney privately about their concerns in October, but went public last week when they continued to see the White House exclude photographers from events – such as the reopening of the White House for tours that had been closed because of “sequester” budget cuts.
An association of news editors, ASNE, urged its members last week to stop using photos and videos produced by the Obama administration “just as you would refuse to run verbatim a press release from them.” USA Today said Monday it would refrain from using the photos. The Los Angeles Times and New York Times are among other publications that said they would use the photos only in extreme circumstances, like a national security emergency, when no other pictures are available.
Carney and Steve Thomma, president of the White House Correspondents Association, agreed at a meeting last week to continue the discussion after the Thanksgiving holiday. The newsman, senior White House correspondent for McClatchy newspapers, said he hopes to gain wider access for photographers and to get the White House to delay photo releases, so they don’t compete with news outlets.
Carney said via email Tuesday that the administration continues to review press coverage “always with an eye to providing as much access as possible.”
“As with any White House, it is easy to find instances where you could question why any event was closed to press,” Carney added. He recalled his work as a correspondent for Time magazine covering two administrations, and how reporters regularly battled for more time with the president. Said Carney: “That’s how it should be.”