By Donald R. Winslow
WASHINGTON, DC (December 12, 2013) – In the wake of this morning's Opinion piece by AP's photography director Santiago Lyon, published in The New York Times, which questioned the Obama Administration's unprecedented restrictions on photographic access to the President, today at the daily briefing members of the White House press corps grilled Obama's press secretary Jay Carney on the topic.
"It was unprecedented," a veteran White House photojournalist who was there told News Photographer magazine today. "I've never seen anything like it. And it's long overdue in coming."
One source call the briefing an "open revolt" over the rules about who gets to photograph President Obama, and when, and which presidential events are legitimately public and which are private.
Carney, himself a former reporter for TIME magazine, seemed frustrated and at times off balance during the exchange as he tried to assure reporters that the White House is "working" on expanding access to Obama. But today the correspondents wouldn't let him off the hook with a simple answer and continued to pepper him with questions.
As an example, during the Obamas trip to South Africa this week to attend the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the President and First Lady were accompanied on Air Force One by former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush, as well as by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Sitting in back of the world's most famous 747 was the 13-person White House press corps traveling pool of correspondents and photojournalists.
One of those photojournalists, who works for an international newspaper, had submitted a written request to Carney for a photographic opportunity of the President and former President and their family while they traveled on the long flight to South Africa and back. The request was not acknowledged.
But in the meantime, White House photographer Pete Souza shot pictures of the dignitaries in the front cabins and released eight photographs via the Internet. All of the independent journalists who were sitting on the same airplane, literally feet away, had zero access to these historical moments.
"For a lot of those hours, the president, former president, first lady and the former first lady were asleep,” Carney said (as reporters openly laughed).
The dignitaries did not appear to be asleep in any of Souza's eight photographs.
Souza, a former Chicago Tribune staff photojournalist and Ohio University photojournalism professor, is a White House veteran. He was President Ronald Reagan's photographer during Reagan's second term after Michael Evans quit to shoot for TIME magazine when the acerbic Donald Regan became Reagan's new chief of staff.
This fight over access has been brewing, and escalating, for at least a year now. It warmed up 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. The words “propaganda photos” were used to describe the White House staff images that are posted on the White House Web site.
A few weeks later, on November 21, 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.
Then today, Lyon's OpEd piece in The New York Times apparently ignited the briefing room firestorm. "Obama's Orwellian Image Control" went up on the Times Web site last night and in print today.
"Manifestly undemocratic, in contrast, is the way Mr. Obama’s administration — in hypocritical defiance of the principles of openness and transparency he campaigned on — has systematically tried to bypass the media by releasing a sanitized visual record of his activities through official photographs and videos, at the expense of independent journalistic access," Lyon wrote in the Times. "Until the White House revisits its draconian restrictions on photojournalists’ access to the president, information-savvy citizens, too, would be wise to treat those handout photos for what they are: propaganda."
The daily press briefing is transcribed by the White House. The portion of the briefing transcript that pertains to press photographers' access to the President and the reporters' questions on the topic can be read online here.