Photography is a powerful and important part of journalism, critical to storytelling and essential to the public record. That pictures are handled honestly and accurately is crucial to journalistic and historic integrity. And central to that is that photographs of public officials and events represent an independent point of view.
The Obama administration, however, does not seem to share that value. It has barred photojournalists from otherwise public events and distributed – as the only visual record publicly available – photos taken by White House staff members.
That is not news. It is not part of an accurate public record. That limitation reduces pictures of the president to propaganda, pure and simple.
A letter sent by The Associated Press and about three dozen other news agencies to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that by insisting on complete control of all photos the administration is “in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases.”
As such, the president can control exactly how he appears, from which angle he is seen, what he is photographed doing and with whom he is shown. Perhaps he would rather not be seen standing next to a Republican who is taller. No problem, the only photo released will show them seated. Perhaps he would rather not remind his critics of his African heritage, so no photo of his meeting with the Kenyan ambassador. The spin possibilities are endless.
Of course, that is exactly the kind of control advertising executives would insist on when filming a car commercial for television. But we all know that buying the new car will not make us young and beautiful, nor give us the time to cruise uncrowded roads along spectacular coastlines. What is the analogous pitch from the White House?
To be clear, no one is asking for access to classified information or intimate family events. In a letter to their members, the presidents of the American Society of News Editors and the Associated Press Media Editors wrote that, “These are not instances where national security is at stake, but rather, presidential activities of a fundamentally public nature.” The events they cited “included President Obama meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with African-American clergy and with Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai.”
And outside photojournalists cannot be there when the president pardons the turkey? Really?
The flip side of barring independent photographers is reflected in the administration’s mastery of social media. As Ron Fournier of the National Journal has said, Obama is “simultaneously restricting access of independent media while flooding the public with state-run media.”
It is all spin, and the real danger lies in not knowing its extent. One of the most famous photos released by the Obama administration was taken in the White House Situation Room when American forces killed Osama bin Laden. Dana Milbank of The Washington Post has written that the image was “digitally altered so that material on the table in front of the secretary of state could not be seen.”
Maybe that was a classified document. Then again, maybe it was just a copy of the National Enquirer and Hillary Clinton would rather not look shallow at such a momentous event. But that something was deleted raises the obvious question as to what other images might have been altered.
The only answer is an independent view from photographers and photo editors not tied to the president. Whether it be Fox News or MSNBC, The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, no news agency simply repeats press releases. They cannot be expected to do likewise with photos.