White House reenactments stir debate over photographic practice

Correction: Earlier versions of this article misstated the year of the shootings that killed four students at Kent State University. They occurred in 1970, not 1971. This version has been corrected.

May 13, 2011

The White House took a bold stand this week in favor of reality: No longer, the administration said, would it help create staged news photos.

Those pictures of the president standing at the lectern for one of his televised speeches? Yeah, they’re a kind of a crock. For decades, little known to the public, photos of the president making a major address were reenactments. Presidents — stretching at least as far back as Harry Truman, apparently — finished their speeches and then pretended to do it again a few minutes later, so that photographers barred from the actual event could snap photos.

The resulting images have often been presented as the real thing when published by countless newspapers and Web sites.

Maybe not a critical deception but phony nevertheless. News, after all, is supposed to be about real events, not re-creations of them. Imagine if the grief-stricken teenager crouched over a fallen protestor at Kent State was called back to re-shoot that iconic 1970 news photo, or if Neil Armstrong had restaged his first steps on the moon.

The latest little sham followed President Obama’s address to the nation on May 1 about the killing of Osama bin Laden. Moments after the speech, the White House admitted five news photographers to the East Room, where the president pretended for the cameras. Snap. Snap. Send.

A well-respected Reuters photographer, Jason Reed, blew the lens cap on this everyday fraud when he blogged about the Sunday-night assignment. “Once Obama was off the air, we were escorted in front of [his] teleprompter and the President then re-enacted the walk-out and first 30 seconds of the statement for us,” Reed wrote.

Reed’s blog item went viral and the debate — as well as the embarrassment — began.

A White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, allowed this week that “this arrangement is a bad idea.” The White House and journalists have begun talking about what can be done instead.

The problem is the tension between the news media’s desire for fresh images of a major speech and the logistics of pulling that off. No administration wants an address of major importance disrupted by clicking shutters or jostling photojournalists. What’s more, some parts of the White House, such as the Oval Office, are too small to accommodate even a limited pool of photographers — once teleprompters, lights, TV cameras and production technicians are in place.

Many news organizations bristle at publishing official White House photos of an event (propaganda!) or disdain screengrabs of the TV broadcast (poor quality!). The after-the-fact re-creations, meanwhile, strike some journalists as a gross violation of basic ethical standards.

“Any time you take a photo that looks real and isn’t, you’re perpetrating a visual lie,” said Sean Elliot, president of the National Press Photographers Association. “We have enough trouble maintaining our credibility with the public as it is. It behooves us to do everything we can to maintain” the public’s trust. “Anything’s that not staged or faked is an acceptable alternative to faking the address for the benefit of photographers.”

John Harrington, president of the White House News Photographers Association, said one answer might be for photographers to use remote-controlled cameras attached to the TV camera trained on the president. Shutter noises, he said, could be muffled by using something called a Jacobsen Blimp, a hard-plastic case that surrounds the camera. The accessory is used by photographers working on movie sets.

Some say it’s not the photos that are fake — the president was in the White House — it’s the caption that leaves a false impression.

Associated Press spokesman Paul Colford said his organization typically captions such photos by saying that the president “poses for photographers after addressing the nation in a televised address,” or “reads the speech for photographers after the televised address.”

AP sends out a TV “frame grab” of the actual speech as well as the staged photo. “We only shoot the posed picture because of all of the requests we get for a photo and not a frame grab,” Colford said.

But AP and other wire-service distributors have no control over how news organizations present the photos. The Washington Post, for example, did not mention when its front-page photo of Obama was taken, leaving people who had seen his speech on TV to presume it was shot during the speech.

The caption under a Reuters photo of Obama, taken by Jason Reed, was ambiguous: “HISTORIC: Bin Laden’s death will provide a clear moment of victory for Obama at a time of deep political turmoil overseas.”

Michel du Cille, The Post’s director of photography, said he regrets that the paper didn’t make it clearer that the picture was taken after the speech. “I’ve always had a problem with using those photos,” said DuCille, a 23-year veteran of The Post. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve always tried to throw my body in front of that train and say, ‘Don’t use those. They’re fake.’ . . .

“This one slipped by us.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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