It’s been fifteen months since the last mainstream media revolt against the White House, and this one looks less impressive than its predecessor. The White House press corps began slamming the Obama administration for its failure to give them access to the President in the late summer of 2012, as Barack Obama chose to spend time with entertainment media and local news stations rather than answer tough questions about his record. Jake Tapper led the pushback in August 2012, but in the end Obama got the last laugh — and the national media played into the strategy by going after a much more accessible Mitt Romney instead.
The latest pushback is a wan imitation of the first. It started last month, when a photographer from the New York Times told Jay Carney that the exclusion of outside photographers at the White House was the equivalent of Soviet-era propaganda efforts. National Journal’s Ron Fournier captured the moment, and agreed with Doug Mills that the current administration was running a “monopolistic propaganda” machine with taxpayer funds:
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.”
Comparing the White House to the Russian news agency is a hyperbole, of course, but less so with each new administration. Obama’s image-makers are taking advantage of new technologies that democratized the media, subverting independent news organizations that hold the president accountable. A generation ago, a few mainstream media organizations held a monopoly on public information about the White House. Today, the White House itself is behaving monopolistically.
The fast-moving trend is hampering reporters and videographers who cover the White House, but Mills’s profession has probably been hardest hit. “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,” reads a letter delivered today to Carney by the WHCA and several member news organizations including The Associated Press and The New York Times.
The letter includes examples of important news events that were not covered by media photographers, and yet pictures were taken by the White House image team and widely distributed via social media. This happens almost daily.
The White House responded by having their official photographer take a picture of the media photographers at the White House. That didn’t quiet down the revolt, however. Today, Dana Milbank takes up where Fournier left off:
I asked Pete Souza, a White House photographer, whether other photos of his have been altered. He sent me to deputy press secretary Josh Earnest, who said that altering photos would be done only to protect classified information and that he didn’t know of other instances. He defended the photo releases generally, telling reporters, “There are certain circumstances where it is simply not feasible to have independent journalists in the room when the president is making decisions.”
Making decisions? Here are some of the big moments at which the White House replaced independent eyeballs with in-house eyeballs: The president and first lady waving to a sea of people, with the Washington Monument in the background, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s march; Obama swimming with one of his daughters in the Gulf of Mexico to show that the water is clean; Obama embracing one of his daughters in Nelson Mandela’s prison cell; the president touring the West Bank church on the spot where Jesus is thought to have been born (news photographers were allowed to shoot images when George W. Bush toured that location); Obama alone on the Rosa Parks bus, sitting in the same row where the civil rights icon sat; Obama shaking hands on Veterans Day with the oldest living World War II veteran; Obama shaking hands with Mitt Romney in the Oval Office; the first lady and the president greeting kids the day White House tours resumed this month.
In the past few months, the White House has substituted in-house photography for independent images of Obama meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the co-chairs of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, Hillary Clinton, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, African American faith leaders, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham and Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai.
You don’t have to alter photographs to make them misleading. Releasing photos selected to show the president in the most flattering way can also create a less-than-honest portrait of history. These often go out on the White House’s Flickr account and are picked up for free and repackaged by disreputable news services and published by unsuspecting media outlets. News photographers are angry because it threatens their livelihood. We all should be concerned that it smacks of propaganda.
All true, and valid points. However, while photojournalism is indeed important, it’s not as if Milbank’s associates in the WHCA made it their mission to push past the propaganda in ways wide open to them. Just to give a couple of examples: Barack Obama spent the last five-plus years as candidate and President insisting that his health-care plan would not force anyone to lose existing coverage or access to their current providers. That was as demonstrably false three-plus years ago after the passage of ObamaCare as it is obvious today. Where was the WHCA in dealing with that propaganda?
Or another: For more than two weeks after the terrorist attack on our consulate in Benghazi on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the beat reporters at the White House seemed awfully willing to accept the idea that the entire incident was nothing more than a demonstration over a months-old YouTube video that got out of control. Anyone questioning that explanation got dismissed as “playing politics,” until it became obvious that even the White House never believed that story. And to this day, no one seems interested in demanding an accounting for Obama’s actions on that night.
Besides, as Steve Gutowski commented on Twitter when Fournier published his piece, it wasn’t the White House photographer that kept publishing photographs of Obama with ersatz halos around his head.
That doesn’t necessarily detract from the specific points Fournier and Milbank are making in these essays. They are correct about the impact of state-controlled media coverage, which is essentially what we have regarding White House photography now. It’s just that for most of Obama’s presidency, we haven’t seen much better from the rest of the industry either.