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 monopolistically.
The fast-moving trend is hampering reporters and videographers who cover the White House, but Mills's 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."
Journalists understand that the president's family and national security events must be off-limits at times. Journalists also don't object to the White House using social media; those are platforms as legitimate as televisions and print. The problem is that the Obama White House is simultaneously restricting access of independent media while flooding the public with state-run media.
Again, this is propaganda--utterly lacking a skeptical eye. The irony is that Obama is using technology that democratized and flattened the media to centralize and strengthen the powers an institution, The Presidency.
That was the sentiment behind Mills's crack about Tass, according to people who attended the Oct. 29 meeting. Carney took offense.
"Oh, so now we're like Stalin?" the White House press secretary replied, laughing at the veteran New York Times photographer.
Olivier Knox, a Yahoo reporter and long-time White House correspondent who attended the meeting with Mills, shot an angry look at Carney and said, "It's not funny, Jay."
Here are just a few examples of how the White House uses your taxes to manipulate Obama's image.
Before the 50th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial, the White House image team met with photographers covering Obama and agreed that the media could shoot pictures from behind the president and first lady--the best place to capture the magnitude of the crowd and moment. When the photographers arrived, a White House aide reneged on the promise. "Sorry it's not going to happen," he sniffed. The photo on the left was taken by AP. The one on the right came from Obama's photographers who were given exclusive access to a position that virtually ensured their photos would go viral. The White House had a monopoly on the day's most potent image.
Chief White House photographer Pete Souza gets exclusive access to Obama, often at the expense of photographers who don't get paid to make the president look good. The picture on the left is taken by a news photographer while Souza hogs the center frame, where he holds up a camera to take the picture at right. White House photographers have had exclusive access for decades, but before social media their photos were not distributed widely. Many news organizations publish and broadcast the White House photos (often without realizing it), which is akin to distributing a White House press release disguised as a news story.
Media photographers were able to take photos of Obama visiting Nelson Mandela's former jail cell (see left). They were told his visit with Mandela's family in the cell would be "private." And yet photos of Obama and the family, taken by the government-funded White House photographer, were made public and went viral. This passes as "private" in the Obama White House.
Official White House photographers are paid to document the president of the United States for posterity. So why do they take and distribute so many photos like this – ones with no sign of the president? Hint: The crowds are always big, happy and adoring of Obama. All on your dime.
When the Obama family adopted Bo, media photographers were allowed to take pictures of the dog. Not so when Sunny arrived. This photo was taken by the official White House photographer – a small sign of how far the White House is moving to push independent photographers out of the picture.
Obama meeting his former secretary of state and potential successor Hillary Rodham Clinton is a newsworthy event, perhaps even a historic one. In the past, the White House press corps would have been brought into the meeting for a few pictures and questions. Not so with Obama. He fiercely controls his image.
The same goes for this official White House picture of the Obamas meeting with Americans after the White House was re-opened for tours. By excluding the media, Obama ran no risk of being asked about the controversial suspension of the tours, or of having a tour member speak ill of his White House.
These two photos illustrate how a president committed to transparency has instead restricted access. At left is President Bush touring the crypt containing the birthplace of Jesus Christ. It was taken by an AP photographer. Obama barred photographers during his visit to the exact same spot, and released the exclusive image at right. It was taken by photographer paid by taxpayers to make flattering photos of the president.
One of the most compelling and historic images of the Obama era, the nation's first African American president is picture here looking out of the window of the Rosa Parks bus. It's a great photograph but as a matter of public record, it's no better than beefcake photos of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Those are shot and distributed by Tass.