Tensions between the Obama administration and the White House press corps boiled over Thursday amid a lack of access to the president and the use of government photographers as substitutes for independent journalists.
Nearly 40 news outlets and organizations issued a formal protest and sent a letter to White House press secretary Jay Carney, blasting the administration for not living up to its oft-repeated pledge to be the most transparent in history.
“Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the president while he is performing his official duties,” the letter reads in part. It was delivered by the White House Correspondents’ Association and also was signed by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the White House News Photographers Association and dozens of other organizations and individual media outlets.
“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,” the letter continues. “You are, in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases.
Specifically, journalists object to the White House’s policy of freezing out photographers and videographers from presidential events. In their place, the administration routinely releases official government photos and videos from the same events.
Recent examples include: Mr. Obama’s July 10 meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; the president’s July 29 lunch meeting with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; a July 30 sit-down with Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators; and an Oct. 11 meeting with Pakistani women’s-rights activist Malala Yousafzai.
But the White House pushed back against that criticism Thursday, claiming it’s merely trying to use social media and other new technology as a way to deliver more content directly to the American people.
“This is something we tackle every single day, but it is the responsibility of those of you who are sitting in those seats to push for more. You’re supposed to be agitating for more access. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be doing your job,” White House principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. “The fact that there is a little bit of a disagreement between the press corps and the White House press office about how much access the press corps should have to the president is built into the system. If that tension didn’t exist, then either you or we aren’t doing our job.”
Mr. Earnest denied the administration is trying to replace journalists with taxpayer-funded government photographers, instead arguing that Facebook, Twitter and other Internet tools have allowed the public unfiltered access to the commander in chief that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.
“There are certain circumstances where it is simply not feasible to have independent journalists in the room when the president is making decisions. Rather than close that off to the American public, what we’ve done is we’ve taken advantage of new technology to give the American public even greater access to behind-the-scenes footage of photographers of the president doing his job … I understand why that is a source of some consternation [among the press], but to the American public that is a clear win.”
Many in the White House press corps strongly disagreed with that characterization and said the Obama White House is setting a bad precedent that will result in reporters having even less access in future administrations.
“The right of journalists to gather the news is most critical when covering government officials acting in their official capacities,” the correspondents’ association letter reads. “It is clear that the restrictions imposed by your office on photographers undercut the president’s stated desire to continue and broaden that tradition. To exclude the press from these functions is a major break from how previous administrations have worked with the press.”