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JANUARY 23, 2009 2:06PM

Obama's Picture War with the Media

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21dayone_3aPhoto: Pete Souza/The White House

Well, actually it was more of a skirmish. On Wednesday, the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse refused to distribute images provided by the White House of the President’s activities in the Oval Office during his first full day in office, including the much-discussed second swearing-in ceremony. To quote the advisory issued by the AP:

“The Associated Press' long-standing policy does not allow accepting government handouts of images such as these from situations to which the AP believes it should have independent access.”

Vincent Amaluy, a director of photography for Agence France-Presse, gave the White House the benefit of the doubt on this matter, assuming that first-day confusion was the culprit, according to an AP news item.

It is ironic that the day after a powerful inaugural speech heralding the New Transparency in government, and during a day of signing off on legislation to help carrying such a worthy goal, the Obama administration should stumble a bit on this very point. The news agencies, of course, have a point: while it is reasonable to rely on the White House for photography from areas (such as the Situation Room) which are off-limits for security and logistical reasons, the Oval Office is the President's public office, an has been accessible to the major media for historic occasions by established precedent. And it is unfortunate that a video record of the second swearing-in is not available for posterity; to rely on a single official photograph seems downright anachronistic in the Age of YouTube.

Yesterday morning the White House press office held a conference with  news agency photo editors, but according to the AP the situation seems be at an impasse, with press secretary Robert Gibbs insisting that "we would have had to get a bigger room" to accomodate the media for events such as the swearing in.

While I'm willing to allow for a certain amount of unfamiliarity with the established routine with big media, I believe that Obama and his people have made a substantial misstep here, at the very beginning of his historic term of office. You don't want to mess with the press on issues like basic access if you truly want to overturn the entrenched Bush legacy of secrecy and obfuscation. Of course, there's plenty of time to fix this; and on the other hand, having an official White House photographer has its benefits, such as well-lit, perfectly composed images as befitting the legacy of a precedent-breaking President! I am confident, however, based on Barack Obama's track record, that the reality of his office will ultimately do the image justice.

Next: a profile of Pete Souza, the official White House photographer

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interesting point, Marco, and I can see where it might raise eyebrows and have some symbolic weight, but I'm going with the French on this one and giving them the benefit of the doubt.

I think intention is more important than symbolic gestures - it was probably a last minute scheduling thing and I can't imagine the intent was to deceive or hide anything (as opposed to banning photos of coffins arriving)

good to see you back on OS!
Jesus. Tempest, meet teapot. Whatever.
Like the MSM didn't just take Bush's talking points and print them verbatim fot 8 years? Puleeez, give me a freakin' break.
I have to agree with the other posters... all accounts I have read seem to indicate a last minute occurrence due to Robert's and Obama's schedules.

To compare this small oversight to the previous administration's deliberate policy of suppression is a bit of a stretch.
I think that for people who this matters to, it's a really big deal. These are probably the same folks who wrote into CNN via Facebook about there actually only being 43 presidents to take the oath. ::sigh::

I think it'll take some time for the media and Obama to feel each other out. Until then, there will probably be a few of these little blips. I don't think it's earth shattering, but I do think the tone is being set right now. It's not like he did it under cover of darkness, though. ;)

(thumbified for paying attention)
If Anything, they might have been protecting Justice Roberts, who is culpable for the fu in the first place....
“The Associated Press' long-standing policy does not allow accepting government handouts of images such as these from situations to which the AP believes it should have independent access.”

Screw AP. They're the same MSM outlet that wrote about the friendly fire incident in Iraq TWO MONTHS LATER than Salon.com.

As for the rest of them, I'm with VR. They ought to get over themselves.
This probably the most nothing story to hit the air and cable waves in the history of modern communications. The media ought to get a life and concentrate on matters of life and death, such as the domestic economy, and on our nation's security. When I first saw this story on CNN, Wolf Blitzer looked somewhat apoplectic. At first, I thought the world was coming to and end. But then I realized that it is just Wolf's doomsday style.
Regarding my prior comment, I did not mean to imply that the topic isn't suitable for discussion here or anywhere else. I speak of the big boy media and their tendency to overly dramatize minor matters and create mountains out of nothing on a regular basis. Sorry for my lack of communicative skills.
I'm sorry, but I'm having a bit of trouble calmly surveying this. It sounds more to me like the AP is having a snit for being ignored, rather than raising legitimate concerns.

Let's have some perspective here. The Bush White House fought tooth and nail to release records about substantive issues that legitimately concern us all (e.g., Chaney's famed energy task force). The Obama White House didn't let a couple of pool photographers in for an almost completely redundant and *ceremonial* photo, but did release a photo of it.

Would the APs photos have been substantially different? What's the logic in having multiple photographers snapping away during ceremonial moments? Do we really need 5 or 10 photographers photographing what is essentially *the same thing*? Please.

If we're going to get up in arms, let's do it over something important. The AP needs to stop their whining and start doing their jobs. Good grief!
Sorry, AP, but the guy you posted more than a few egregious hit pieces on is now president. Elections have consequences.
While I'm all for holding Obama accountable I just wish
the media had been all over Bush in the same fashion.
Whew. Thanks all, for the responses:

lpsrocks, Jodi, karinb: originally I thought the same thing— it's just a scheduling flub, no biggie. The post was going to have a more general point, i.e. media and the politics of image; but as I was researching I learned about yesterday morning's conference call, and I was surprised that the White House seemed to be putting its foot down, i.e. trying to set the policy of barring press cameras from the Oval Office, which does comes off as just a tad bizarre. BUT let me make two points here:

a) OEsheepdog, Douglas, Austincynic, Boanerges1: you are all on the money. The media cashed in its credibility as champions for truth a long time ago. AP in particular has shown itself to be less than neutral, which is disturbing as hell. AP is making this stink because it's easy to, and because images have immediate commercial impact. But this would affect the press in general.

b) I don't believe for a minute this is about deception, and certainly it seems like a non-issue compared to the Bush administration's egregious and sinister lockdown on information. Obama is clearly interested in documenting the inner reality of the White House in a comprehensive and tidy fashion: Souza was expressly hired for that purpose. This may be as simple as making sure ten cameraman aren't in Souza's way, or in his shot.

I think the Souza project is admirable, but I also I think the agencies are correct in principal. Government-sanctioned imagery is government-sanctioned imagery. Official White House photography and press access don't need to be mutually exclusive.
After horrible human rights violations perpetrated by the bush admin which went unreported as such, we have this new sensitivity.
Gonna see a lot of this as they have almost nothing to complain about and have it their stock in trade to do just that.
Marco, this is timely.....It is so important for his administration to accommodate the press. In the past, the public gets impatient when there is tension between administrations, and reporters, and press staff. They have the smarts to correct it fast. We will see......I want to remain optimistic.
These are the same spineless journos who carried water for the lying Bush administration for 8 years without nary a 'but' or 'wait'. Now they are protesting because Obama's admin is giving them a picture of a totally harmless and pointless swearin ceremony? WTF? Are they shitting me? What- do they think Obama is faking the photo of the repeat-swear-in? Wow- there's a scandal of international import!
Good Post, Marco. Provocative.

I think that I have the sequencing right but there were two photo ops that the AP, which started the snit, was pissed about. The first was a simple picture of President Obama sitting at his desk reading, framed by the door opening going into the office. The White House photog was not even actually in the Oval Office. AP screamed bloody murder about how it had a "right" to be in the Oval Office. Hello?? Its the President's damned office! Who has a "right" be in there?

The later unfortunate thing happening the same day, ie: not letting in even pool photogs to take pics of the second swearing in was just the thing to get the AP flaming again. I think that was a goof up by the White House.

I honestly think that this is exactly the kind of turf skirmishing that goes on with a new Administration between them and the press, them and the Congress, them and the GAO, them and anybody that believes they have a "right" to this or that. It usually calms down as the existential reality starts to set in. It is natural and these little dust ups should not be worried about too much.

When I watch the talking heads every night on MSNBC what I am surprised at in not how little access the new President is allowing but how, every day, the press is there for photo ops of signing or explanation of Executive Orders, explaining policy positions, letting the press into the introduction of the Sec of State by the Pres to the State employees, explaining the Gitmo decisions and more. And it has only been 3 days! Can we not remember that we could go three MONTHS without ever seeing Bush?

Give it a chance; it will shake out.

Monte
AP should have been included, of course. Likewise there should have been a pool TV camera there as well.

That being said, the wires are being silly about not distributing the photo. They could have sent it with a condemnation for their exclusion. Secondly, anyone, including all their members and clients, can go to the White House web site and get it anyway. So what's the point?
Dakini (hey, how are you? :) ): yup. It was apparent that photo ops were a convenient bone for the Bush Administration to throw the media in return for a pass on all the subterfuge.

o'stephanie: outside of the press' failures in the past, it would be expected, I think, for them to call Obama's bluff re. true transparency. Although to cyclopic's point I would have loved to have seen Wolf Blitzer's "apoplectic" take on the story. I find the CNN jocks particularly vacuous. "Magic Screen" my ____!

Gary— you are so right when it comes to the public's impatience with this sort of thing.... just read the responses to this post! The matter of who photographs what seems inconsequential compared to, say, the gutting of the Constitution that went on under Bush. To respond to icemilkcoffee, it's not just about the isolated case of a swearing-in ceremony, but the big issue of journalists' ability to access and distribute unfiltered information. Images, like words, ultimately represent points of view. The plurality of these points is vital to a democracy. Sounds windy, but it's true. Of course it's up to bloggers and the thinking public to put the MSM's collective feet to the fire so that they uphold their pledge to uncover the facts which aren't conveyed by pretty pictures.

Monte: It's worth mulling the particulars, but I do think the press has the general right to be in the Oval Office to record public events, because the Presidency is a public office. Having said that, you are absolutely correct in that the Obama Administration has been setting a terrific tone in its opening days. I'm personally delighted, and so is most everyone I know. It's the corrective we as a nation and a culture have been needing so badly. My calling attention to the photography issue comes from my tendency to be a completist about things like accountability and transparency, and from being just a geek for 21st Century visual culture.

GaryBaumgarten: Exactly. Which is why my next post on Pete Souza will feature the official First Day Oval Office Photographs.
Wonderful to have you back, Marco. No one does this sort of thing better and I look forward to your profile of Souza.

So I can't identify the portrait over the fireplace - any ideas?
Thx, Sanjuro. Great question! Did a preliminary Googling but no answers yet. Funny you should ask, since I have a post on the backburner regarding another picture hanging on the wall in the background of a shot of Obama in his old Senate office....
I'd say this falls in the category of once, a mistake, twice, a pattern, and we have had far too much of a pattern of image manipulation over the last eight years -- no photos of soldiers' coffins -- to allow this to continue.

Yes, it's true that the press failed to do it's job with bush, but that's no reason to hamstring them now.
Fox News is the culprit for starting the false rumor that Obama wasn't president because he wasn't sworn in properly on Jan. 20. The Obama administration said the reason for the second swearing in was to be safe and to hush these rumors. I honestly think Obama didn't want to embarrass Roberts by having the media circus with cameras there. A photo was good enough for Lyndon Johnson's swearing in back in 1963. Why wouldn't it be now?

AP consistently publish news articles, picked up by all the nation's newspapers, that are clearly biased against Obama. They did this during the campaign and they are doing it now. So, it's no surprise to me that they would be complaining about this.

Did you notice that Fox raised the question whether Obama was the president again because he had not sworn on the bible. It never ends!
Marco--now that I got that off my chest...thanks for posting this. Rated.
I, too, would like to time travel back to the 70's or even the 80's when the MSM had even an iota of integrity. Hell, I'd be happy to even think they've done anything but sit on their thumbs for the last 8 years, but alas, I can't.

Lately, the AP can't even write a simple wire service story that would get them a C+ in any journalism course, anywhere. So, no, the AP is acting out their snit in a vacuum as far as I'm concerned. They don't have the talent or integrity to tell anybody about protocol. As if their precious protocol has REALLY informed us lately.

I'm assuming that the reason the press was not allowed during the second swearing in is because considering the amount of press that follows Obama at the moment, there might not have been enough room for them all. The last-minute scheduling thing sounds plausible to me.

As far as not having an actual film clip, I'm fairly certain both Obama and Roberts agreed that they were going to humor the idiots who brought up the oath issue only so much.
Tom:
I agree. The press screwed up.... doesn't mean we can fire them. Post-Bush, we need the press more than ever, as well as an aggressively proactive administration, which thankfully we have. But we need watchdogs on both. The last 8 years have shown this.

Joan, flyover52: again, AP and the swearing-in are only parts of the story. Reuters and Agence France-Presse also refused to distribute the White House photos of the first day in office. However, you both bring up interesting points on how much documentation is really necessary. I believe that documentation, or the recording of events, has gone beyond the necessity of evidence to becoming a powerful impulse of the culture as a whole. We are a YouTube nation, a Twitter world. We kind of expect to be able to Google anything in the present and past and conjure it up anew on our laptops and cellphones anytime we want. Events gone un-documented leave a kind of raw hole in the collective consciousness, although it's also true that the collective consciousness has a short-term memory. Wow, OK, that's maybe a whole other post!
@Marco. I was a little too snarky in my original post. I'm glad you posted the link of the AP's letter. What I find interesting is that the AP does not say WHY they do not accept photos other than their own. One can certainly surmise, but I find it interesting that they are almost assuming that everyone should know why.

I can certainly understand why any press service, in the age of Photoshop, would want to take their own photographs whenever possible. (Actually, it has always been possible to alter photos, it just took a little longer and needed a more expert touch.) It keeps almost everyone honest if there are multiple pictures of an event, so it would be easy to spot a doctored one. If this is the AP's reasoning, I can certainly understand, but they didn't, so they are leaving themselves open to charges of egotism.

And you are right that "going to the videotape" is easier than ever, and thank whatever it is. I love the fact that I can call up recent newscasts and shows in seconds on YouTube or other sites in order to confirm or contradict my memory. (Although according to another prominent story on the front page of OS, I'm too old to figure out how to use YouTube or even e-mail.)

But there are dangers in catering too much to this mindset. I am still in touch with my son's high school history teacher. For the past year he has felt compelled to write "There is no moving film of anything before 1891," on the blackboard on the first day of class. This is because even the History Channel will run renactments of historical events without any indication that they ARE renactments. Some shows will have disclaimers, but many don't, so there are younger students who really think there is moving film of the Civil War until they are explicitly reminded that there isn't.

I also think the press is protesting to the Obama administration because they actually think they will listen, and to me that is a good thing. The Bush administration's attitude towards the press was always a "sucks to be you" one, and the press eventually rolled over and played dead. Maybe their is some life in them yet.
Is this going to be like the post-Clinton win?

The right (and the flying asshole monkeys (Limbaugh, et all)) need to get over it. John and the flake didn't win. BOO FREAKING HOO!!!

Get over it...

Start acting like you value living in AMERICA and aren't throwing tantrums like a three year old...

The AP is not the BBC (anymore). AP and even NPR have turned to the dark side. We, America, have no BBC to rely on. God forbid the idiots that are devoted to Fox News...

Part of the problems in this country IS the simpering and definitely partisan media... My mom is concerned that the republicans are trying to whip up someone to assassinate Obama. I'm definitely beginning to wonder myself..