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