White House video blog offers an inside view

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais - AP)
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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 15, 2010

You didn't see this on CNN or Fox News or NBC: President Obama awkwardly introducing Chile's president, Sebastián Piñera, to the Netherlands' prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, at the recent nuclear security summit. "You know, uh, you've met Jan?" the president says tentatively as the other world leaders stand aside like shy kids at a dance.

Or this: Obama, playfully doing his best impression of Muhammad Ali, throwing mock punches into the midsection of a costumed Easter Bunny following the White House Easter Egg Roll.

You didn't see it on the networks because the behind-the-scenes video was only available on "West Wing Week," the Obama administration's new video blog. The six- to seven-minute compilations, which appear each week on the White House's Web site (http://www.whitehouse.gov) and on such video-sharing sites as YouTube, offer what a narrator on each segment calls "your guide to everything that's happening at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

Well, not everything, of course. But "West Wing Week" is effectively the White House's video vision of itself and its chief occupant, as it would like to be seen, unfiltered by journalists.

Organized chronologically, it's a mishmash of this and that -- the president inspecting factories and farms, talking with people in diners, meeting dignitaries in the Oval Office, making major policy speeches. The blog doesn't break any news. It also doesn't show the president as anything less than presidential in word and deed; each week's video highlights Obama's efforts to address another crisis or major policy issue, such as the government's response to the Gulf Coast oil disaster or his initiative to reform the financial sector.

The videos, created by official White House videographer Arun S. Chaudhary, also provide a few things the White House press corps doesn't get to see. As he fills out his census form in the Oval Office, for instance, Obama lists his age (48) and mutters that he's "an old man." Moments before a news conference, he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laugh over a photograph of press secretary Robert Gibbs. At another juncture, the camera sweeps into the White House kitchen, where chefs are busy preparing the executive mansion's official Passover Seder. Another sequence captures the president warming up before throwing out the first pitch at Nationals Park on opening day.

Presidential administrations have always tried to harness new communications technologies to shape a favorable image, says Mordecai Lee, a professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Grover Cleveland was the first president to appear on moving film. Calvin Coolidge was the first to address the public directly via radio; Franklin Roosevelt redefined the use of the medium with his folksy "fireside chats." Bill Clinton was the first commander in chief on the Internet, and George W. Bush used it extensively. During the 2008 campaign, social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, became standard tools.

"West Wing Week" is in the same tradition, Lee says: "I think this is all about bypassing the capital press corps."

Some of the footage is too trivial for news organizations to covet, and some comes from widely documented public events, like speeches. But the package also includes moments that journalists would have loved to have had access to.

The White House's media management practices have drawn quiet criticism from journalists in the past few weeks. Despite Obama's campaign pledge to be open with the media, members of the White House Correspondents' Association met with Gibbs recently to complain about limitations on their access. The group is mainly upset about the relatively few informal question-and-answer sessions Obama has held since taking office. Obama had 46 such encounters with the press during his first year, far fewer than Presidents George W. Bush (147) and Clinton (252) during their first years, according to Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University. However, Obama gave many more media interviews (161) compared with Bush (50) and Clinton (53) in their first years. Kumar said Obama gave more formal news conferences in his first year (27) than Bush (19), but far fewer than Clinton (45).

News photographers have also been peeved by the White House's practice of barring photojournalists from events and offering its own pictures as a substitute, said Caren Bohan, a Reuters reporter and correspondents' association board member.

"We don't object to anything they want to do to get their message out," said Bohan. "If they want to use blogs, videos and other media to do that, that's great. We just don't want that to substitute for journalist access."

The message-control issue flared again this week when the White House posted its own video interview with Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, bypassing reporters who have been seeking to interview her.

White House officials deny that they are attempting to end-run reporters. In fact, they say such initiatives as "West Wing Week" are evidence of greater candor. "These videos are just one part of the president's effort to have the most transparent White House in history," said Nick Shapiro, a spokesman, who added that "West Wing Week" "is yet another way for people to get a better sense of what's happening at the White House and why."

The White House wouldn't make Chaudhary, the videographer, available for an interview. But in a statement issued through Shapiro, he said the videos are "written, produced and edited by me." Chaudhary, a former film professor at New York University who extensively documented Obama's presidential campaign, added: "As the official White House videographer it's my job to document the president's activities, in motion pictures, for history. Though not as extensive as the still picture record of the president's routine, I found that every week I had a lot of interesting clips that couldn't really stand on their own but did when collected together and shown in context of the president's schedule. West Wing Week is essentially the vehicle for these moments. It's almost as if our flickr site could talk."

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