Editors of The Associated Press condemned the White House’s refusal to give photojournalists real access to President Obama, who prefers to circulate press release-style pictures taken by his own paid photographers.
These official photographs are little more than propaganda, according to AP director of photography Santiago Lyon.
The AP has only been permitted to photograph the president alone in the Oval Office on two occasions–both in his first term–and has never been allowed to photograph the president with his staff in the office. The AP generally receives access when foreign leaders are visiting, but at other times the White House relies on its own photographers to take pictures and distribute them to the press.
Previous administrations were less strict about photos, undermining Obama’s frequent claim that he strives to run “the most transparent administration” in history.
Lyon made his remarks at the AP Media Editors national conference in Indianapolis on Wednesday.
AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll echoed Lyon’s concerns.
“This works because newspapers use these handout photos,” she said at the conference, according to attendee Jack Lail, digital editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Carroll advised newspaper editors who were present to stop using the White House’s preferred photos in their own stories, according to Lail and other attendees.
— Chris Cobler (@chriscobler) October 30, 2013
This is not the first time the AP has insinuated that Obama’s photo policy is bad for modern journalism. Editors at the country’s largest wire service began complaining about Obama’s autocratic media strategy during his first campaign for the presidency in 2008.
They even sent a letter to the Obama campaign that said, “There are many ways in a campaign to control your message and conduct private meetings that do not involve deceiving the press corps.”
In April of this year, the AP renewed its criticisms in an article titled “Controlling the narrative while limiting media access.”
“[The Obama White House] is limiting press access in ways that past administrations wouldn’t have dared, and the president is answering to the public in more controlled settings than his predecessors,” wrote the AP. “It’s raising new questions about what’s lost when the White House tries to make an end run around the media, functioning, in effect, as its own news agency.”
The article quoted Mike McCurry, press secretary to former President Bill Clinton, as saying that Obama exercises a level of control over the media far beyond previous presidents.
“What gets lost are those revealing moments when the president’s held accountable by the representatives of the public who are there in the form of the media,” said McCurry.
The history of White House photography suggests barring photographers in this way may even limit Obama’s propaganda power. Photojournalists snapped many of the best-remembered Oval Office photos, including the picture of a backlit President John F. Kennedy with his head bowed, which was shot by New York Times photographer George Tames. That photo, dubbed “The Loneliest Job In the World,” went on to become an icon of the Cuban Missile Crisis, although it was snapped several months before the crisis and simply showed the president reading a newspaper while standing, to relieve his back pain. During the actual missile crisis, JFK reportedly left the Oval Office to join fabled stripper Blaze Starr in the Lincoln Bedroom for what Starr called a “very short” encounter.
Lyon, Carroll, the White House and Pete Souza, President Obama’s official photographer, did not respond to requests for comment.