The Obama White House has become notorious for its restrictions on media access. Few press photographers get to photograph even the most banal moments of the presidency. Perhaps one reason why the photo of Obama taking a “selfie” at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service got so much attention is because it’s rare to see a photo of him away from the West Wing not composed and selected by his White House photographers.
At Thursday’s daily press briefing with White House press secretary Jay Carney, some members of the press corp got verbally up in arms over the issue.
“A lot of this had to do with the fundamental transformations in the media, of which we and other institutions are participants,” Carney told reporters. “But we did not create the Internet.”
Here’s one way to interpret that: In the Internet age, the White House can (and has full right to) sidestep the traditional media in providing images directly to the people, using social media instead. Which is true, but not the point the journalists were arguing.
April Ryan, a correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, summed up the press sentiment well. “The Internet had nothing to do with Air Force One,” she said, referring to the president’s recent trip to Nelson Mandela’s memorial. “When you had a large group of reporters in the pool, photographers there as well, who could have come up with Pete Souza, to the front of Air Force One, and taken a couple of pictures…. But we were not allowed.”
“You don’t have to subscribe to that wire service to see that photograph,” Carney said of the photographs taken of the president.
Which goes to show that the media and Carney are arguing two different points. Carney says the independent publications aren’t needed, because the White House can publish the photos. The media say the White House isn’t operating with an objective filter. As Ryan told Carney, the sound of press cameras remind those in power they are being watched. And the act of observing changes that which is being observed.
These are the photos the White House took. And they told a certain story of presidential (Bush, Obama) bonding. Yes, that’s a relatively trivial story. But what would have it looked like as photographed through the lens of the independent media?
We’ll never know.