December 13th, 2013

White House Press Secretary to Photographers: We Respect You, But We Don’t Need You

In an exchange yesterday with reporters over why press pool photographers were kept away from President Barack Obama on his trip to Nelson Mandela’s funeral last week, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney ducked, dodged–and said times have changed.

“This is part of a bigger transformation that’s happening out there that’s driven by the ability of everyone to post anything on the Internet free of charge so that you don’t have to buy that newspaper or subscribe to that wire service to see that photograph.”

In other words, the White House doesn’t need press photographers anymore, and neither does the public, now that the White House can distribute its own pictures of the president online.

The exchange began when a reporter asked why White House photographer Pete Souza was allowed on the speaker’s platform when President Obama spoke at  Mandela’s funeral, but press pool photographers were not allowed. Reporters also pressed Carney hard on why press pool photographers were not permitted to photograph the President and First Lady, along with former President George Bush and his wife, Laura Bush, on the flights to and from the funeral in South Africa.

The White House released its own photos, shot by Souza, from the flight.

Carney took the questions with a preamble of praise to photographers. “I have huge admiration for that service to the free flow of information and the unbelievable bravery that cameramen and photographers display, especially overseas in hard areas, in dangerous areas, like Afghanistan, like Syria and elsewhere,” he said.

He added later on after reporters kept pressing the issue, “From the President on down–and I mean that–there is absolute agreement that there’s no substitute for a free and independent press reporting on a presidency or the White House, on Congress, on the government. It’s essential. Essential. And that includes photography.”

The White House got as much access as it could for press pool photographers on the speaker’s platform at the funeral, Carney said. When pressed about the lack of access on the flight, which reporters pointed out was 20 hours each way, Carney said, “For a lot of those hours, the President, the former President, the First Lady and the former First Lady were asleep. So we probably weren’t going to bring in a still pool for that. Or they were having dinner or something like that. But look, I think I just made clear that I want to work on this issue.”

How committed he is to “work on this issue” is unclear. Reporters pressed repeatedly for details, and Carney offered none, other than to say his office has met with representatives of the White House Correspondents. And he added, “I can promise you that the outcome of that will not be complete satisfaction” because of inherent tensions between all administrations and the press over access.

Last month, Carney rejected a request from 38 news organization for a meeting to discuss their complaint about a lack of access for press pool photographers to the Oval Office. In doing so, he told them the public interest was served well enough by the stream of photos the White House was releasing on social media.

The media has dismissed those photos, by Souza and other White House photographers, as “visual press releases.” In an op-ed piece published in The New York Times yesterday, Associated Press Director of Photography Santiago Lyon labeled the White House handout photos as “propaganda.”

Related:
AP Photo Chief Appeals to Public About White House Access. Will It Help?
Media Protests White House Limits on Photographers

December 12th, 2013

AP Photo Chief Appeals to Public About White House Access. Will It Help?

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, from memorial for Nelson Mandela. Handouts like these are "visual press releases," argues AP's Santiago Lyon.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, from memorial for Nelson Mandela. Handouts like these are visual press releases, argues AP’s Santiago Lyon.

The White House has waved off a complaint from media organizations about photographers’ lack of access to the Oval Office, and now Associated Press director of photography Santiago Lyon has taken the complaint to the op-ed pages of The New York Times.

The question is, will the AP’s protest stir the kind of public outrage that makes the White House relent?

Last month, 38 media organizations sent a joint letter of protest to the Obama administration, charging that it was denying them the right to photograph and videotape the President while he was performing official duties in his office. According to the letter, the administration is keeping photographers out by designating the president’s work meetings as private. But the White House has been posting its own photos of those meetings on social media.

In other words, the White House is doing an end run around the press corps. The aggrieved media organizations criticized the administration for its lack of transparency, and dismissed the White House photos as “visual press releases.” The news organizations asked for a meeting with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney to discuss removing the restrictions.

Through one of his deputies, Carney’s response boiled down to: We’re keeping the public plenty informed, so take a hike.

With Lyon’s Op-ed piece to the Times, AP is hoping to get a more sympathetic hearing in the court of public opinion.

Carney “missed the point entirely” with his dismissive response to the protest letter, Lyon writes. From there, he reiterates the point that White House photos are visual press releases, not journalism. The official photos “propagate an idealized portrayal of events on Pennsylvania Avenue,” he writes.

After arguing the merits of images by independent news photographers, Lyon concludes: “Until the White House revisits its draconian restrictions on photojournalists’ access to the president, information-savvy citizens, too, would be wise to treat those handout photos for what they are: propaganda.”

And he’s exactly right. But it’s hard to imagine a public clamor on AP’s behalf for two reasons. First, when it comes to Oval Office photo ops, citizens might have a hard time distinguishing between photos from the pool and White House handouts. Second, the public doesn’t hold the press in high esteem these days. To many non-journalists, Lyon’s complaint might only come across as whining.

What citizens are really interested in are images of the President’s unscripted moments, as Lyon suggests in his op-ed piece. He mentions some memorable photos of past presidents. Most happened outside the Oval Office: Nixon flashing a victory sign as he was boarding a helicopter after his resignation, Ronald Reagan waving from a hospital window after his cancer surgery, George W. Bush’s look of astonishment when he first heard of the 9/11 attacks.

What news organizations need to do, besides editorialize in The New York Times, is redouble their efforts to show the public what the White House will never release: fresh, unscripted, uncensored images of the President. The pictures from Nelson Mandela’s funeral of Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro and the selfie incident were certainly a good start.

November 21st, 2013

Media Protest White House Limits on Photographers

Visual press release? President Obama and Vice President Biden met with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in the Oval Office, July 30, 2013. Media organizations say their photographers were excluded on the grounds that it was a "private meeting." The White House issued this photo by staff photographer Chuck Kennedy afterwards.

“Visual press release”? President Obama and Vice President Biden met with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in the Oval Office, July 30, 2013. Media organizations say photojournalists were barred because the administration declared it a “private” meeting.  The White House issued this photo by staff photographer Chuck Kennedy afterwards via Flickr.com.

More than three dozen news organizations and journalists’ trade associations have submitted a joint letter of protest to the Obama administration, charging it with denying the news media the right to photograph and videotape President Obama while he is performing his official duties.

“We write to protest the limits on access currently barring photographers who cover the White House,” the letter to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney began. “We hope this letter will serve as the first step in removing these restrictions and, therefore, we also request a meeting with you to discuss this critical issue further.”

To get Carney’s attention, the letter includes an indirect threat of legal action on First Amendment grounds. It says the restrictions on photographers “raise constitutional concerns,” and goes on to cite a 1980 Supreme Court ruling that protects the First Amendment right of the press to access information about the operation of government.

The letter was delivered to Carney today. It was signed by all major TV news networks, wire services, major newspapers, as well as American Society of Media Photographers, National Press Photographers Association, and other organizations.

“As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the Executive Branch of government,” the letter says.

It accuses the administration of excluding photographers by labeling the President’s meetings as “private events.” The letter lists 8 examples of meetings that amounted to “governmental activity of undisputed and wide public interest,” including meetings between the President and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, and other officials, dignitaries, and activists.

After all but one of the meetings, the White House issued official White House photos of the meetings, according to the letter.   “You are, in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases,” news organizations complained to Carney in the protest letter.

The letter says that previous administrations were more transparent, and adds, “[T]he restrictions imposed by your office on photographers undercut the President’s stated desire to continue and broaden that tradition.”

The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the letter.

The Obama administration has been subject to past criticism for its handling of the press.

For instance, the Committee to Protect Journalists says in a recent report, “Despite President Barack Obama¹s repeated promise that his administration would be the most open and transparent in American history, reporters and government transparency advocates said they are disappointed by its performance in improving access to the information they need.

“”This is the most closed, control freak administration I¹ve ever covered,’ said David E. Sanger, veteran chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times.”

The Times was one of the 38 organizations that signed today’s letter of complaint to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.