News groups blast White House for restrictions on photographers


US President Barack Obama delivers remarks in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House, in Washington DC, USA, 21 November 2013. (MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA)
November 21, 2013

Photojournalists have long complained about their access to President Obama and the White House’s habit of bypassing them to release “official” photos of presidential meetings and events.

Now, news organizations are making a formal complaint to the White House about the “visual press releases” that have displaced independent coverage.

In a letter to White House press secretary Jay Carney on Thursday, dozens of news outlets and organizations protested the restrictions on news photographers.

“Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties,” the news organizations said in the letter. “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 was signed by the White House Correspondents Association, the group that formally negotiates with the administration on access issues, as well as such groups as the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Associated Press Managing Editors and the White House News Photographers Association and individual outlets, including The Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, Fox News and the three leading broadcast networks.

According to the letter, the White House has deemed certain events with the president as private, excluding photographers. But then it admits its own photographers and videographers, who take photos and videos that are released to the public.

“You are, in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases,” the groups said in the letter. “The right of journalists to gather the news is most critical when covering government officials acting in their official capacities.”

It added, “To exclude the press from these functions is a major break from how previous administrations have worked with the press.”

The groups are seeking a meeting with Carney to ask for a change in policy.

Pressed on the issue during the daily press briefing, White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest noted that there were “certain circumstances” in which journalists had to be excluded.

“What we have actually done is use a range of new technology to provide people greater access to the president,” said Earnest, adding that the White House used technology to provide images direct to the public. “To the American people, that’s a clear win,” he said.

But he acknowledged, “That is not a replacement for independent journalism.”

Santiago Lyon, AP’s director of photography, said in an interview Thursday that the letter was sparked by “the trend” of White House restrictions on photographers since Obama took office.

Just last month, he said, the White House kept photographers away from a White House meeting between the president and Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani student who was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen for speaking out in support of the right of girls to go to school. She met with Obama and his wife, Michelle, and their 15-year-old daughter, Malia.

The letter cites seven recent instances of newsworthy meetings from which independent photographers were excluded, including the one with Malala. Among the others were meetings with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in July and Sens. Lindsay O. Graham (R-SC) and John McCain (R-Ariz) in September.

The White House released its own photo of the meeting, showing the Obamas and Malala chatting in the Oval Office beneath portraits of Washington and Lincoln. The photo was released on the White House’s Flickr page.

“Someone who is clearly in the news who gets to meet with the president is definitely someone we should get access to,” Lyon said. “They are offering these images in lieu of real journalistic access. Why should we settle for these kinds of visual press releases when we would never [publish] a written press release?”

Lyon said, “This is the sort of behavior you see in other countries or regimes that are far less democratic than the U.S. It’s surprising to see this in our country.”

Photographers have bristled before about how the White House stage manages the visual depiction of Obama. In 2011, for example, news photographers complained about a little-known practice in which the president poses at the lectern for photographers following a major address. The photos are then presented in news accounts as the president giving the speech when, in fact, the photos have been taken afterward.

The White House said at the time that it would discontinue the practice and would work with photographers who wanted to take photos during speeches.

Staff writer Philip Rucker contributed to this story.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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