THE ISSUE: White House policy on photos, video
OUR VIEW: Independent documentation of president on the job important role of free press
The 50th anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy this past week brought back iconic images of another era. Many of the photos of Kennedy as president in the years before his assassination in Dallas in 1963 came from journalists provided regular access to the president, his administration and even his family.
Kennedy benefitted politically from the public’s looks inside “Camelot,” while other presidents and their administrations were not as fortunate. But regular access to the White House and the president conducting official business has been an established order of business and an important part of our democratic process.
At least until now.
The White House has ceased providing press access to President Barack Obama as he conducts business and has begun distributing photographs and video to the media instead.
Dozens of news organizations, including The Associated Press and Lee Enterprises, parent company of The Times and Democrat, are protesting. And two groups, the American Society of News Editors and the Associated Press Media Editors, are urging media to stop making use of handout photos and video from the White House, dismissing them as little more than “government propaganda.”
The news organizations’ letter to White House press secretary Jay Carney detailed a number of recent examples in which photographers weren’t allowed to cover presidential events that were deemed “private” by administration officials — even though the White House indicated their newsworthiness by releasing its own photos of the same events.
“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 states, pointing out that the restrictions imposed by the Obama White House represent a major break from the practices of past presidents.
The reaction of the White House to the protests and its explanations must be put in the context of Obama’s vows in taking office that his administration would bring a new day of openness in government.
According to an AP report, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest cast the news organizations’ protests as part of the natural tension that exists between journalists and those they cover.
“The fact that there is a little bit of a disagreement between the press corps and the White House press office about how much access the press corps should have to the president is built into the system,” he told reporters. “If that tension didn’t exist, then either you or we aren’t doing our jobs.”
Earnest defended the White House’s release of handout photos taken by its staff photographer, saying that allows the public to have greater access to the inner workings of the administration.
“What we have actually done is use a range of new technology to provide people greater access to the president,” Earnest said. “To the American public, it’s a clear win.”
No, it is not.
Let’s not forget that photographs and video distributed by the White House are not going to be the same as that gathered by independent journalists. The White House material may document events and show the president, but what is distributed is going to be selected as much in the context of public relations as news.
Kathleen Carroll, AP executive editor and senior vice president, said too many public events “are now recorded only by photographers who work directly for the White House, resulting in images that are little more than visual press releases.”
Santiago Lyon, AP’s director of photography, added furthet context: “Independent photographers strive to show things as they actually are, not how the protagonists would like to see them.”
Rather than ushering in a new era of openness, the Obama administration is denying the public important insight into the president on the job and setting precisely the wrong example for public officials from the highest levels in Washington to town halls around the nation.