Open Up The Oval

The Editorial "Open Up The Oval" was published in the November 2013 issue of News Photographer magazine.
The Editorial "Open Up The Oval" was published in the November 2013 issue of News Photographer magazine.

DURHAM, NC (November 21, 2013) – If the NSA happens to have been listening to photojournalists’ cell phones recently, which isn’t all that far fetched given the news of late, they could have picked up on a lot of chatter about how we haven’t had any real access to the president during the administration of Barack Obama. Oh, it started out promising; this was going to be the most transparent administration in history, they told us during the first term. But in reality, access got worse and worse as time went by – and during Obama’s second term, it’s been nonexistent. 

The White House claims to be perplexed by this because, after all, they hired “one of your own” as they said, Pete Souza, to be Obama’s photographer. Can’t you trust Pete, they rhetorically asked? And his pictures are available for free, they pointed out, on the White House Flickr Web site. What’s the problem?

The problem is that independent visual journalists have been all but blocked from any “real” access to the president for a very long time now. Media organizations including NPPA have been keeping track of all the times on the president’s schedule that something has been marked “private,” or when there’s been a news lid issued from the Press Office, and then the next thing you know a White House photograph from an event shows up on its official Web site.

Another problem is that there have been a number of apologists for the White House practice and for Souza; prominent photojournalists who claim that Souza has indeed made it possible for newspaper photographers to get access to Obama to make documentary photographs. Early in the administration there were a few photographers who did so. But not since.

So it’s come to this: On the first day of November, editors from the Associated Press at the AP Media Editors national conference in Indianapolis condemned the White House’s refusal to give independent photojournalists real access to Obama. They said the president prefers to circulate press release-style pictures taken by his own paid photographers. The pictures are little more than propaganda, AP said. And they get away with it, AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll said, “because newspapers use these handout photos.” She advised editors to immediately stop using those pictures alongside their own news stories.

This isn’t new. “The Obama White House is limiting press access in ways that past administrations wouldn’t have dared, and the president is answering to the public in more controlled settings than his predecessors,” AP complained in 2008.

“We’re stressing to media groups that they really need to exercise true editorial control by not using these handout pictures," NPPA general counsel Mickey H. Osterreicher said. "It doesn’t do us any good to demand better access if publications keep using White House handout pictures. It’s the one thing we do have control over, even if the White House refuses to do anything about access.”

And it’s not just the print media, Osterreicher says.

"We also expect the TV networks to get on board by refusing to use the handouts. Otherwise, the White House won't care."