By Donald R. Winslow
WASHINGTON, DC (December 17, 2013) – The National Press Photographers Association's general counsel Mickey H. Osterreicher, along with additional representatives from a media coalition who are protesting the lack of photographers' access to President Barack Obama, today met with the Administration's press secretary Jay Carney and Josh Earnest at the White House to discuss the problem.
NPPA joined in with more than 30 other major news and media organizations, along with national newspapers and television broadcast networks, in late November to protest the limits on access currently barring photojournalists who cover President Obama and the White House.
Representatives of the White House Correspondents Association, the American Society of News Editors, Associated Press Media Editors, White House News Photographers Association, NPPA, and representatives of the television network pool met with Carney and members of his staff, along with White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, to discuss the ongoing issue of media access to the president.
The group stressed the need for consistent, meaningful access to the President for photographers and the full White House press corps.
“After today’s meeting we remain cautiously optimistic that the White House will follow through on its earlier commitment to transparency,” Osterreicher said afterwards. "The real work will come in the weeks ahead as we continue to work with the White House on improving the presumption of openness when it comes to press access."
The group was encouraged by Carney's recognition that independent press access to the President is essential to democracy, as well his willingness to address the group's concerns by agreeing to engage in an ongoing dialogue with media representatives, led by the WHCA.
"There are some things we wish we had done differently and now look with fresh eyes at upcoming opportunities with renewed focus," Carney told the media representatives today. And, he said, "We are committed to take action on photographer's access."
Carney today objected to some of the wording of Lyon's OpEd article. "Rhetoric here matters," Carney said. "It's not Orwellian. It's not Stalin. Obama gave almost three times as many interviews as his predecessors. The president has submitted himself to aggressive questioning."
Questioning and access to the President by reporters is, of course, another matter. The question at point before the White House Press Office today is photographic access, not aggressive questioning by reporters. While the meeting today addressed the photo access issue with Carney, the question of improved access was not resolved. Osterreicher said discussions will continue next month.
The point of today's meeting was to address increased access for photojournalists, and not a secondary issue which has been a sore point for many in the White House Press Corps, and that is the practice of the White House handing out free White House staff-produced photographs on the Internet of the President behind the scenes. Many in the independent press corps believe they should have more opportunities to have the same kind of candid access to the President as the President's staff photographers, and they find it increasingly impossible to compete with the free hand-outs when they don't get a chance at the same coverage.
From the White House point of view, they have pointed out that several photo agencies have taken the White House staff-produced photographs that are free on their Flickr feed and have presented those photographs for sale on their own Web sites. Why anyone would pay several hundreds of dollars for a White House-produced photograph that is also free on the Flickr Web site is a perplexing question, but a random check online found photographs by White House photographer Pete Souza which are free for downloading and use on the Administration's photo feed that are also presented for sale on an international corporate picture agency's Web site.
Today's meeting with the press secretary was the administration's response to a formal letter of protest that was hand delivered to the White House on November 21. In it, the media coalition said, "Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties. 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.”
The media's discontent over access to Obama has been growing during the past year. Some say it even started long before that, on Obama's very first day when only a White House photographer (and a TIME magazine contract photographer) documented the new President's first day in the Oval Office, and the White House press corps was not given any access.
The wave of discontent grew larger this year when, on November 1, Associated Press editors openly criticized the Obama administration for pushing out its own White House photographs on its Flickr and Web site rather than allowing news organizations independent access to the President. In some news accounts, the words “propaganda photos” were used to describe White House staff images that are posted on the White House Web site.
Then on December 12, an OpEd piece in The New York Times written by Associated Press photography director and vice president Santiago Lyon strongly questioned the Obama Administration's unprecedented restrictions on photographic access to the President and called out White House staff hand-out photographs as "propaganda."
Lyon wrote, "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. 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."
That afternoon during the regularly scheduled White House afternoon briefing by Carney, the White House correspondents grilled Obama's press secretary about Lyon's accusations made in the OpEd article and about photographic access. One veteran journalist at the briefing said he's never seen anything like it before, calling the journalists' response "an open revolt."
Carney's grilling came just days after the Obama's trip to South Africa to attend the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. The Obama's were accompanied on Air Force One by former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush as well as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Sitting in the back of the plane was the 13-person White House traveling press corps made up of correspondents and photojournalists. Despite a written request to have an opportunity to photograph the dignitaries during the 20-hour flight there, or the equally-long return journey, the request was not acknowledged and only White House photographer Pete Souza was allowed to photograph the President's traveling party.
Souza's eight photographs, released on the White House Web site, were widely published around the world while – once again – the independent media was kept at bay and was given no opportunity to document the historic traveling party.
This story was updated Tuesday night with comments from White House representatives