campaign desk

No Handouts

White House photographers bridle at restricted access
March 25, 2010

In July 2005, the White House News Photographers Association took a big step. The Bush administration, much more so than its predecessors, was declining press photographers access to events that they could have easily been open and instead releasing official photographs, taken and vetted by White House employees. The association was moved to send a letter of protest to the White House.

“A White House photo release, no matter how accurate the image, provides only one perspective—one that is carefully screened and approved,” the letter complained.

It was part of a campaign that included a near-boycott of the photos from major wire services, and it garnered support from the White House Correspondents Association. Eventually the Bush administration agreed to drastically reduce their usage of the handouts. While the push was underway, the association had many internal discussions on the threat the photo releases represented to their access, and to creating an independent, unfiltered record of the president’s actions.

The head of the organization’s advocacy committee, Ron Sachs, says that Pete Souza, then a photographer for the Chicago Tribune and chair of the association’s contest committee, was memorably “enthusiastic” about the drive at one general membership meeting, chiming in and saying something like “This is something we need to do.”

“Pete was very, very, much in favor of our initiative. We were looking at it as an access issue and an advocacy issue,” says Sachs.

Souza is now the White House’s official photographer, the man behind the camera for many of the administration’s photo releases that capture events from which the press has been barred. (Souza did not return a phone call requesting comment on his past views on the releases; White House spokesperson Josh Earnest declined to comment on the matter, and on several other questions CJR posed on photo handouts.)

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Yesterday, though, press secretary Robert Gibbs took questions on the handouts from several print journalists, upset that when President Obama put pen to paper and issued his forty-seventh executive order, laying out restrictions governing federal funds and abortion as part of an agreement he reached with Michigan congressman Bart Stupak and other anti-abortion Democrats in his efforts to pass the health care bill, no press, let alone independent photographers, were there to witness it.

Ed Henry of CNN first raised the issue:

HENRY: What about allowing us in, for openness and transparency?

GIBBS: We’ll have a nice picture from Pete that will demonstrate that type of transparency.

As the reporters pointed out, their issue wasn’t that the photos might be unattractive.

“This is not an attack on Pete,” said NBC’s Chuck Todd, amongst clamoring from other correspondents.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Souza’s colleagues in the White House News Photographers’ Association. When Souza, who also served as an official photographer in the Reagan administration, was selected as Obama’s White House photographer, the association president said “they could not have selected a better person for the job.”

“Pete is an esteemed colleague,” says Sachs. “It has nothing to do with Pete as a photographer. It has to do with the government filter.”

“But I’m doubly appalled they’re putting Pete in this position. The Pete Souza I know understands that this is wrong,” says Sachs.

While yesterday’s briefing room jousting was an unusually prominent example of protests around the photo issue, it’s not the first. The photographers’ association has sent the administration multiple letters protesting the move, requesting that the five-member “tight stills pool,” which can capture dozens of independent images in under a minute, be allowed into such events.

In a written reply, Gibbs conceded that the disruption was “typically minimal” but maintained that “on occasion … the President’s busy schedule is not able to accommodate even a minor disruption or delay.”

The Obama administration has barred independent photographers from a wide variety of events both potentially controversial and anodyne, ranging from yesterday’s abortion order signing, to the president’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, to his retaking of the flubbed oath of office, to bill signing ceremonies honoring female pilots in World War Two and promoting foreign travel to the United States.

The opportunity to exercise this control means that the president’s staff can pick what the only public image will show, down to the president’s body language. In the photo documenting his diplomatically touchy meeting with the Dalai Lama, Obama offered no smile. When signing yesterday’s executive order, Obama looked dutiful, but not overjoyed.

Susan Walsh, an AP photographer who was president of the WHNPA during their successful effort to curtail the handouts under Bush, worries that the Obama administration’s regular dissemination of handout photos from events that could easily be opened to pool or other photographers is permanently eroding independent photographic access at the White House.

In 2005, the WHNPA won the support of the managers of the AP photo wire services, who agreed not to distribute the official photos except in the rarest circumstances. This gave their campaign significant leverage—if the president wanted newspapers across the country to have a visual record of his actions, he would have to allow press photography.

But this White House essentially runs its own photo wire via its Flickr feed, which mixes the photo releases with behind the scenes fly-on-the-wall style shots that are the more traditional remit of White House staff photographers, and that few, if anyone, objects to. Anyone can download and republish its photos free of charge. (The White House has even claimed that it’s better to do a photo release than to “restrict” access to “a limited group of photographers”—i.e. a pool made up of media professionals.)

“The genie is out of the bottle,” says Walsh. “Any administration will see the benefit of being able to control their own content. The technology has made it so it’s really easy to put images out there. And you know what? It’s a great strategy for them. You’re never going to get them to stop it. “

Sachs is frustrated that the WHNPA’s continued complaints aren’t getting any traction, either with the White House or with news outlets that continue to disseminate the official photos.

“We won the access under the Bush administration,” laments Sachs. “And it has been taken away under the Obama administration.”

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.