WASHINGTON, DC (November 21, 2013) – The apparently ever-increasing lack of access to President Barack Obama by independent journalists and news organizations who cover the White House has been evolving into a wave of deep discontent over the past year.
That wave grew larger on November 1 when Associated Press editors openly criticized the Obama administration for pushing out its own White House photographs rather than allowing news organizations independent access to the President. In some news accounts, the words “propaganda photos” were used to describe the White House staff images that are posted on the White House Web site.
This morning the swelling wave may have crested over on Pennsylvania Avenue following the hand delivery of a media coalition protest letter to White House press secretary Jay Carney. [Deputy press secretary Josh Earnest accepted the letter on behalf of Carney, who was out today.]
Today the National Press Photographers Association joined in with more than 30 other major news and media organizations, along with national newspapers and television broadcast networks, to protest the limits on access currently barring photojournalists who cover the White House and President Obama.
“Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties,” the letter says. “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.”
Independent visual journalists have been all but blocked from any “real” access to the President for a very long time now, NPPA general counsel Mickey H. Osterreicher said.
“Media organizations including NPPA have been keeping track of all the times on the president’s schedule when something has been marked ‘private,’ or when there’s been a news lid issued by the Press Office, only to find a White House photograph from the event show up a short time later on its official Web site.”
Key media participants in today’s protest include the White House News Photographers Association, the White House Correspondents’ Association, the Associated Press, Agence France-Press, Reuters, The Washington Post, The New York Times, ABC News, CBS News, Fox News and NBC News, among many others.
In today’s protest letter to Carney the group said, “To be clear, we are talking about Presidential activities of a fundamentally public nature. To be equally clear, we are not talking about open access to the residence or to areas restricted, for example, for national security purposes.”
The apparent reason for closing certain events to photographers is that these events have been deemed “private,” the letter said. “That rationale, however, is undermined when the White House contemporaneously releases its own photograph of a so-called private event through social media. The restrictions imposed by the White House on photographers covering these events, followed by the routine release by the White House of photographs made by government employees of these same events, is an arbitrary restraint and unwarranted interference on legitimate newsgathering activities. You are, in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases.”
As examples the letter outlined several events from July 2013 which the White House Press Office had listed as “read-outs” with an “official White House photo(s) attached.”
“They illustrate the troubling breadth of the restrictions placed upon newsgathering by the White House to record governmental activity of undisputed and wide public interest,” the letter said.
From just July there were these four examples where independent photojournalists were shut out: a meeting between the President and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; a meeting between the President meeting with co-chairs of the U.S. China Strategic and Economic Dialogue; a meeting between the President and former Secretary of State Clinton; and a meeting where the President and Vice President met with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
“While certain of these events may appear to be ‘private’ in nature, the decision of the White House to release its own contemporaneous photographs suggests that the White House believes these events are, in fact, newsworthy and not private.”
The Obama administration’s practice of excluding the press from functions such as these is a major departure from how previous administrations worked with the press. But more than just tradition, these restrictions raise constitutional concerns.
“As the Supreme Court has stated, the First Amendment protects ‘the public and the press from abridgment of their rights of access to information about the operation of their government,” the letter to Carney said. The finding is from a 1980 case, Richmond Newspapers Inc. v. Virginia, which was about the media being barred from a series of criminal trials.
“The fact that there is no access whatsoever only heightens those concerns,” the letter continues, citing another case where the media had been restricted and a court found that “The total exclusion of television representatives from White House pool coverage denies the public and the press their limited right of access, guaranteed by the First Amendment and the Constitution of the United States.”
A contingent of the White House press corps, led by photojournalist Doug Mills of The New York Times (who was manned with a stack of photographic prints), had confronted Carney about barring the independent media and then releasing White House hand-outs back on October 29, according to reports.
Joining in the protest, the Associated Press Media Editors and the American Society of News Editors also asked their members to stop enabling the White House by running their hand-out photographs.
"We must accept that we, the press, have been enablers," their joint letter to members said. "We urge those of you in news organizations to immediately refrain from publishing any of the photographs or videos released by the White house, just as you would refuse to run verbatim a press release from them."
For example, Time magazine and Time.com are near the top of the list of media outlets who have routinely published White House photographer Pete Souza's hand-out photographs. A search of time.com for the key word "Souza" today yields 140 returns; some of the images are singles, some are with stories, and others are in galleries like this one, with 125 photographs. By one veteran picture editor's estimate, Time has run roughly 250 Obama White House hand-out pictures in the magazine or online in the last five years.
An Editorial on this same topic ran in the November issue of News Photographer magazine. Read the Editorial online here.
A .PDF of today's protest letter to Carney can be seen online here.
A Question & Answer piece with Associated Press photography director Santiago Lyon about the access problem is now live on the AP Blog.
The media groups who are among NPPA in this protest include:
American Society of News Editors
American Society of Media Photographers
Associated Press Media Editors
Associated Press Photo Managers
Association of Opinion Journalists
Fox News Channel
Gannett Co., Inc.
Lee Enterprises, Incorporated
The McClatchy Company
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
National Press Club
National Press Photographers Association
New England First Amendment Coalition
News Media Coalition
Newspaper Association of America
The New York Times Company
Online News Association
Professional Photographers of America
Radio Television Digital News Association
Regional Reporters Association
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Society of Professional Journalists
The Washington Post
White House Correspondents’ Association
White House News Photographers Association