On March 4, President Obama sat behind his stout oak desk, flanked by beaming lawmakers, and, wielding a pen for the cameras, signed the Travel Promotion Act into law. Just a routine White House moment, right?
Maybe not. The images from which I—and others in the press—recreated that scene were captured by government employees. The White House released a photo to the world and produced a slick video that would have looked right at home on the evening news. No journalist was present for the bill signing because none were invited.
The bill, which passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support, had the anodyne goal of luring foreign tourist dollars to these shores. Not so controversial. But the ceremony was just one recent example of an unsettling trend of limiting press access to major events at the White House, from the Dalai Lama’s visit to the odd do-over of Obama’s flubbed attempt to take the oath of office.
Despite the administration’s trumpeting of its record on transparency—not to mention its use of the issue as a campaign cudgel—on the whole reporters have found this White House to be no different than the Bush administration (or any other recent administration) when it comes to providing information or being accessible to the press. “By and large, they’re just like all of their predecessors,” says CBS Radio correspondent Mark Knoller, who has covered every president since Gerald Ford. “They give us information that serves their interests more than our interests.”
Message control is central to every administration, and it would have been naïve to expect much else. But the Obama White House has actually regressed in some troubling ways. For instance, Obama has been far less available for questioning by journalists than even President Bush, who was openly contemptuous of the press. And accommodations on off-the-record background briefings and White House photo releases—both forged in the wake of significant press failures in the run-up to the Iraq war—have eroded since Obama took office.
Photo releases, where shots taken by the official White House photographer are offered to news outlets, are nothing new. But photojournalists have long been irked when such photos are the only images of an event that could have easily been made public. In 2005, after an increase in presidential events from which they were excluded, the White House News Photographers Association allied with other press organizations and successfully pressed the Bush White House to routinely allow photographers back in. “We won the access under the Bush administration, and it has been taken away under the Obama administration,” says Ron Sachs, who chairs the association’s advocacy committee. He pointed to a series of recent incidents, including the decision to bar photographers from Obama’s February 18 meeting with the Dalai Lama in favor of releasing a single, no-smiles still taken by Pete Souza, the official White House photographer.
It wouldn’t take much to let the photographic pool into the room for half a minute, thereby producing dozens of shots for editors to choose from. Instead, the only record of official White House business is often a single frame, curated by the president’s staff in accordance with the administration’s message of the day.
Message control is enhanced by eliminating instances when the president is forced to answer inconvenient questions—and possibly provide inconvenient answers. Remember the very real national distraction that ensued after Obama suggested at a July 2009 press conference that the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police had “stupidly” arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home? That was Obama’s last formal press conference after a remarkable opening string. In February, shortly after The Washington Post and The New York Times published pieces pointing out the drought, Obama made a surprise half-hour visit to the briefing room. Besides that, he went without a White House press conference until late May—309 days.
For White House reporters the absence of informal opportunities to question the president is at least as galling as the dearth of formal sessions. Richard Stevenson, who covered the Bush administration for The New York Times, says it was routine for reporters to be allowed to ask the president questions—often several times a week—when they were ushered into the Oval Office for quick pool sprays or in other less regimented settings. “It wasn’t an extensive give-and-take, but he did take questions quite frequently,” says Stevenson, now the paper’s deputy Washington bureau chief. “Obama has almost completely stopped doing that.”