White House Photographers Protest Most Control Freak Presidential Administration Ever
“…the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered…” –New York Times reporter David Sanger
Press organizations including the White House Correspondents’ Association and White House News Photographers Association have renewed a demand for access to the White House for photographers. For media organizations like the Associated Press, it is a demand that has been outstanding for over five years now.
A letter signed by over thirty-five different media organizations has received significant coverage. It condemns the administration for routinely denying journalists the “right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties.”
It heavily criticizes the practice by which the Obama administration has deemed events “private” to keep photographers from having access to Obama and then proceeded to have the White House’s own photographer stage photos that will present Obama in a manner pleasing to the president’s staff. Those photos are then posted online and are made available to news organizations to use for free, however, they amount to “visual press releases.”
In the past months, the White House has blocked photographers from having access to Obama when he met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the co-chairs of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, African-American faith leaders, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai.
The White House released its own photographs of these meetings, which media organizations had to rely upon if they were going to publish a visual representation of these events.
The letter explained “imposing limits on press access, as your office has done, represents a troubling precedent with a direct and adverse impact on the public’s ability to independently monitor and see what its government is doing.”
It is unprecedented. Since the first day of his presidency in 2009, President Barack Obama has embraced this standard of being a control freak president with handlers in his staff who work day in and day out to preserve the image he wishes to project to the American people.
The Associated Press has been particularly adamant in its refusal to take the White House’s handouts. AP, along with Reuters and Agence France-Presse, protested when Obama broke with tradition and refused to allow photographers to capture him in the Oval Office on his first day.
When the White House released a photograph of Obama “retaking the oath of office with Chief Justice John Roberts,” AP rejected the photo.
Ron Fournier of the National Journal has described an exchange between New York Times photographer Doug Mills and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
New York Times photographer Doug Mills strode into Jay Carney’s office Oct. 29 with a pile of pictures taken exclusively by President Obama’s official photographer at events the White House press corps was forbidden to cover. “This one,” Mills said, sliding one picture after another off his stack and onto the press secretary’s desk. “This one, too – and this one and this one and … .”
The red-faced photographer, joined by colleagues on the White House Correspondents’ Association board, finished his 10-minute presentation with a flourish that made Carney, a former Moscow correspondent for Time, wince.
“You guys,” Mills said, “are just like Tass [Russian news agency].”…
Fournier also documents multiple examples where the White House prioritized getting the image of the president it wanted over allowing the press to be able to photograph and have access to Obama.
The policy does not affect only pictures of the president but pictures of people meeting with the president. When almost all the photos from the White House are of people smiling and excited, it makes it seem like Obama is super adored and admired.
White House-produced photos, which appear on Flickr, are a part of the propaganda machine Obama has engineered. It also includes “West Wing Week,” which is the White House’s own newscast posted on the White House’s website.”
As ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) for its recent report on Obama and the press, “It’s five minutes of their own video and sound from events the press didn’t even know about.”
The White House will tell producers this is what they have to use if they want to cover the president. According to Chris Schlemon, a Washington producer for the British television news network, Channel 4, said, “When you call the White House press office to ask a question or seek information, they refer us to White House websites. We have to use White House website content, White House videos of the president’s interviews with local television stations and White House photographs of the president.”
The Obama administration may be quick to condemn countries like China, Russia or Venezuela for trying to push their message through state-run media, but, in effect, the White House has effectively coerced media organizations into releasing news reports that rely upon state-funded and state-produced material.
Restrictions to protect Obama’s image have impacted reporters and videographers as well. And, while the president has sought to promote the slogan that his administration is the “most transparent administration ever,” it is more appropriate to call it one of the most control freak administrations ever, as Sanger has said.
Now, there is one class of people in news that have been given access: columnists.
People like David Brooks and Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, Joe Klein of Time Magazine, E.J. Dionne, Eugene Robinson, Ezra Klein, Charles Krauthammer, David Ignatius and Fred Hiatt of The Washington Post, and Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg View are all invited to come to the Oval Office for an intellectual sparring session.
Obama spends these sessions—which can run as long as two-and-a-half hours—trying to convince the columnists that he is right about whatever they are discussing. He also expects the columnists to repeat his views in media and positively communicate what he is attempting to accomplish as president.
The message to the press is clear: Want to photograph the president? Not allowed. Have a savvy columnist who understands politics and is willing to take on the nation’s commander-in-chief in a debate session? We’ll pencil him in, especially if he is able to get on MSNBC and do an interview shortly after.