Media Blog

Pushback Against the WH Spin Machine

Last week, Ron Fournier of National Journal wrote a great piece calling out the White House for holding private events that were closed to the press, but later releasing photos of the events — thus guaranteeing that only approved and the most evocative images make it into the public domain. Fournier writes:

Obama’s Image Machine: Monopolistic Propaganda Funded by You

News organizations protest White House restrictions on independent photo coverage.

New York Times photographer Doug Mills strode into Jay Carney’s office Oct. 29 with a pile of pictures taken exclusively by President Obama’s official photographer at events the White House press corps was forbidden to cover. “This one,” Mills said, sliding one picture after another off his stack and onto the press secretary’s desk. “This one, too – and this one and this one and … .”

The red-faced photographer, joined by colleagues on the White House Correspondents’ Association board, finished his 10-minute presentation with a flourish that made Carney, a former Moscow correspondent for Time, wince.

“You guys,” Mills said, “are just like Tass.”

Comparing the White House to the Russian news agency is a hyperbole, of course, but less so with each new administration. Obama’s image-makers are taking advantage of new technologies that democratized the media, subverting independent news organizations that hold the president accountable. A generation ago, a few mainstream media organizations held a monopoly on public information about the White House. Today, the White House itself is behaving monopolistic.

The fast-moving trend is hampering reporters and videographers who cover the White House, but Mills’ profession has probably been hardest hit. “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,” reads a letter delivered today to Carney by the WHCA and several member news organizations including The Associated Press and The New York Times.

The letter includes examples of important news events that were not covered by media photographers, and yet pictures were taken by the White House image team and widely distributed via social media. This happens almost daily.

Unlike media photographers, official White House photographers are paid by taxpayers and report to the president. Their job is to make Obama look good. They are propagandists – in the purest sense of the word.

The letter reminds Carney that Obama promised to run the most transparent administration in history. It argues that the restrictions “raise constitutional concerns” and amount to “arbitrary restraint and unwarranted interference on legitimate newsgathering activities.”

Newspapers, however, have started to push back. USA Today announced yesterday that it won’t publish the White House’s pre-selected images any longer.

And FWIW, here’s admin spokesman Josh Earnest answered the question in response to Fournier’s piece (Major Garret with the first question):

Q    Last question.  I’m on the White House Correspondents Association Board and it’s mine and many other news organizations that presented to you and the White House a letter today about this issue of access — photographic access, but it’s a broader question — and the White House insistence of excluding independent photojournalists from events that historically have been available to those journalists for the public consumption.  I’d like to give you a chance to respond to this letter and the combined assessment of many journalism organizations for the White House to reassess the policy as it’s currently executed.

 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Major, on the campaign trail in 2008, the President talked a lot about his commitment to transparency, and that is something that the President in office has worked very hard to live up to.  There are a variety of ways in which he has done that.  But one way in which he and we have done that on his behalf is that literally every single day — every single day — at the end of our day, we take a look at the President’s schedule, consider the things that are on there, and look for ways that we can give journalists who cover the White House access to the President; that we can give you and your colleagues a better understanding of what the President is doing, why he is pursuing the priorities that he has identified, and how we hope to make progress on those priorities.  That is a basic function of the presidency, is laying out that agenda and communicating with the American public about what it is and why it is a priority.  

 

So this is something that we tackle every single day.  But it is the responsibility of those of you who are sitting in those seats to push for more.  You’re supposed to be agitating for more access.  If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be doing your job.  So the fact that there is a little bit of a disagreement between the press corps and the White House Press Office about how much access the press corps should have to the President is built into the system.  Like I said, if that tension didn’t exist, then either you or we are not doing our job.

 

So suffice it to say that we remain fully committed to trying to give you and the American public access to the President and as much insight as possible into how the President is spending his day, to what priorities the President has identified, and what he’s actually doing to make progress on those priorities.

 

Q    That tension has long existed, you’re absolutely right. I know it.  I’ve experienced it under different administrations. What is different and what this letter goes to is events that we used to have access to before that we’re denied, and then the White House produces its own photography of that event in a way that seems completely designed to exclude independent eyeballs and only have the taxpayer-funded eyeballs of the person who works for the President of the United States.

 

MR. EARNEST:  Sure.  And I understand why, from your perspective, why it might seem that way.  But what we have actually done is used a range of new technology to provide people greater access to the President; that there are certain circumstances where it is simply not feasible to have independent journalists in the room when the President is making decisions.  So rather than close that off to the American public, what we’ve done is 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.  

 So I understand why that is the source of some consternation to people in this room, but to the American public that’s a clear win.  That is people having access because of new technology to things that they’ve never seen before.  And so that’s something that we have remained committed to and that’s something that we’ll continue to do.  But that has never been viewed internally here at the White House as a substitute for the important work that’s done by free and independent journalists.

 

Q    Josh?

 

MR. EARNEST:  Ed.

 

Q    In keeping with that commitment, can you –

 

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, as a former president.

 

Q    As a former president, I support Major’s questions and I think they are important questions.

 

MR. EARNEST:  They are.

 

Q    Because when you say that you’re providing more access to the American people — you’re shutting off independent journalists who want to cover those events and you’re having people who work for the President actually cover the events.  How is that independent?  How is that more access for the American people?

 

MR. EARNEST:  I think what I described, Ed, is that there are certain circumstances where it’s not feasible for independent journalists to be covering the President.  I think the best example of this would be in the Situation Room of the White House where, when the President is talking about classified issues, it’s just not feasible for us to have those discussions at –

 

Q    That’s an outlier, Josh —  

 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s just not feasible for us to have independent journalists in the room.

 

Q    What about meeting with faith leaders?  How is that disruptive to bring in –

 

MR. EARNEST:  Let me finish my answer –

 

Q    Okay.

 

MR. EARNEST:  – which is, where it’s just not feasible in those circumstances.  So we have done — what we’ve done is we’ve capitalized on new technology that exists — Flickr, Instagram, digital photos that can be easily emailed — to give people pictures of what’s happening in those circumstances.  

 

That is not a replacement for independent journalism.  That is not a replacement or a substitute for giving independent journalists access to the President and the job that he’s doing.  We remain very committed to making sure that independent journalists are documenting what the President is doing.  We want the American people to have a very clear view of the President’s priorities.  We want people to understand how hard the President is working to pursue the priorities that he’s laid out that a majority of the American public supports.

 

So it’s in our interest to work closely with you to give you access so that the American public clearly understands what it is the President is doing.  I understand that you guys aren’t going to agree with every single decision that we make along these lines, but I think what we do agree on is that the principle of unfettered access to the President of the United States on a regular basis by independent, professional journalists is an important priority and a hallmark of our democracy.  That is a — that is something that we agree on and that is — that will be a principle guiding the way that we make these decisions moving forward, as it has been in the past.

And finally, here’s what looks to be e a giant middle-finger to the press corps. Team Obama listed this as their “photo of the day” after the article and questioning. See, we let you take pictures! 

With the uncertain future of HealthCare.gov, this administration is really going to go with the “hey, let’s see how angry we can get the press corps” as its media strategy? Good luck with that.

 

 

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