It’s Either Private or It’s Not, Mr. President

I’ve written about this numerous time before, but it’s bubbling up yet again as the White House Correspondents’ Association and three dozen news organizations have sent a letter to the president’s press secretary protesting the restrictive photography policies of the White House.

At issues is the increasing number of hand-out photos shot by employees of the federal government who were hand-selected by President Obama. Changes in technology have made it much easier for the White House to easily shoot and release their own view of the president’s day to day life, and there is a significant value in that. How a president and his (or her) administration perceives themselves and the work they do gives great insight into why some decisions are made. From a historian’s point of view, the images being created by the president’s photography staff will be invaluable in time.

But in the moment, at this point in time, they are propaganda and not journalism. Dismiss the notion that because the president’s chief photographer, Pete Souza, is a former staff photojournalist for the Chicago Tribune he is committing acts of Journalism – he is not. His, and his associates’, job is to show the general public what the president wants them to see, what the president and his staff believe is important for them to see.

Take this from the New York Times piece linked above:

The White House defended its policy, arguing it is not logistically feasible to give photographers access to every event. The deputy spokesman, Josh Earnest, said, “We’ve taken advantage of new technology to give the American public even greater access to behind-the-scenes footage or photographs of the president doing his job.”

“I understand why that is a source of some consternation to the people in this room,” Mr. Earnest said during the daily White House briefing. “But to the American public, that is a clear win.”


No it is not a clear win “to the American public.” It is a clear win to the politicians who are releasing those images as they are controlling what is seen and what is not seen. But there is no sense of objectivity here, there is no critical analysis being done.

I will give you that there is an argument that one photographer’s image of the president sitting at a desk is not that much different than any other photographer’s image of the president sitting at a desk. But it’s a pretty weak argument.

Need an example? Go to any meeting and watch one person’s facial expressions during it. Just stare at them, paying attention to glances, grimaces, smirks and smiles. Catalog all of those in your head then ask yourself two questions: Which image is the most telling of how that meeting went for that person? And which one will they like the most?

One last rant … the White House is claiming that some of the meetings the president is attending are private events and that is the reason the press has been excluded from them. I have no problem with that argument – there are most certainly moments and meetings that would be hampered or harmed by the presence of outside parties.

But do not exclude the press using the “private moment” excuse and then release your own photos.

It’s either private or it’s not. It’s a binary state – choose one.

For another take, look at Ron Fournier’s piece on the National Journal site.

Mark E. Johnson

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