February 24th, 2014

White House Shuts Out Photographers Again. So Now What?

No photographers allowed: White House released this photo of President Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama on February 21.

The White House released this photo of President Obama and the Dalai Lama on Feb. 21, after barring press photographers from the meeting.

Now that it is evident that the White House is deaf to complaints from photographers and their employers about being shut out of some of President Obama’s official meetings, the question is, What can the media do about it?

On Friday, the White House  closed a meeting between the President and the Dalai Lama, and then angered photographers, their employers, and photo trade groups by by releasing an official photo on Twitter by White House photographer Pete Souza.

Reuters and the Associated Press (AP) refused to distribute the official photo, according to a report by the National Press Photographers Association.

The White House News Photographers Association (WHNPA) issued a statement urging other news organizations not to publish the photo, describing it as “a visual press release of a news worthy event.”

WHNPA also said in their statement, “We are disappointed the White House has reverted to their old strategy of announcing a closed press event and then later releasing their own photo.”

Last November, more than three dozen news organizations signed a joint letter protesting limits on photographers’ access to some of Obama’s official meetings.

A few weeks later, The New York Times published an op-ed piece by AP director of photography Santiago Lyon, who called the White House handout photos “propaganda.”

Around the same time, journalists confronted White House press secretary Jay Carney at a White House press briefing about the issue. Carney told the journalists in so many words that The White House no longer needs photographers like it once did, because it can distribute its own pictures directly to the public on the internet.

“You don’t have to buy that newspaper or subscribe to that wire service to see that photograph,” Carney said at the time.

Nevertheless, he pledged “to work with the press and with the photographers to try to address some of their concerns.” About a week later, on December 17, he met with representatives of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), the WHNPA, and other media organizations.

Afterwards, NPPA general counsel Mickey Osterreicher said in a report published by NPPA, “We remain cautiously optimistic that the White House will follow through on its earlier commitment to transparency.”

That was then. On Friday, after photographers were shut out of Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, White House News Photographers Association president Ron Sachs said in another NPPA report, “I think the White House grand strategy is to talk us to death and do nothing.”

Osterreicher tells PDN, “We (media groups) should be having a meeting soon” to discuss what to do next.

Undoubtedly they’ll be looking for new angles of diplomacy or attack (or both) to regain the access that White House press corps photographers once enjoyed. In the meantime, we ask PDN readers: What would you advise media organizations and photographers covering the White House to do now?

Related:

Media Protests White House Limits on Photographers
White House Press Secretary to Photographers: We Respect You, But We Don’t Need You
AP Photo Chief Appeals to Public About White House Access. Will It Help?

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.