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