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Photojournalists Push White House For Better Access To Obama


From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Reporters today gave White House press secretary Jay Carney a tough time over the way the administration controls President Obama's image, in this case literally by limiting the situations in which professional photojournalists get to take pictures of the president. News organizations have formally protested and NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now to explain

Hey there, David.


CORNISH: So, just how bad did it get? Help us understand why reporters are so stirred up?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it was most immediately prompted this way by the question of who took photographs of former President George W. Bush and President Obama on Air Force One, being ferried back and forth from the funeral for former South Africa President Nelson Mandela. And that was actually the White House photographer, Pete Souza, a guy who used to shoot pictures for the Chicago Tribune, but now carefully tends to President Obama's image, shooting him in perhaps the most striking or the most sensitive ways.

You know, this White House has been very careful to hold photojournalists at arms length really, saying that it's an invasive thing and using, Souza said, to distribute pictures on social media. And of late, you know, news organizations have objected to that.

CORNISH: But what's different about these restrictions compared to those of previous administrations?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, look, a lot of White Houses have tried to find ways to go around the press. You saw President Reagan used imagery, you know, these flapping American flags to speak in front of - even if the news that was being delivered at times as negative, the images were positive. You saw President George W. Bush often talked to local reporters rather than national outlets, as a way of circumventing that.

It's not new but it's a new front. And what President Obama has in some ways are these social media platforms by which he can just try to talk directly to millions of voters and citizens and the people they hope to stir up in support of their policies, rather than having to go through the filter of the media. In this case, the media says, look, if you're going to do that, fine, but let's at least do our jobs so that the public can also get images that aren't directly controlled by the White House itself.

CORNISH: And not just that, some news organizations are actually boycotting the photographs released by the White House?

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. They're saying that it is essentially, you know, led by the Associated Press and Getty Images, that the pictures put out by the White House itself amount to propaganda; that we wouldn't simply run press releases verbatim in the pages of a newspaper or on our broadcasts, and not complement that with actual stories and analysis taking those statements apart. They say so, too, these images are attempting just to shape how the president is viewed.

CORNISH: So how has the White House reacted?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, initially I think it was with some derision. They said: Hey, look, we didn't invent the Internet. This is the way the world works, suck it up and take it. And more recently you've seen the Jay Carney, as recently as this afternoon, say, look, we're willing to work to address your concerns, while not conveying entirely that he thinks it's that serious a deal.

CORNISH: So, David, speaking of photographs, one that's made the rounds this week is a photo of the prime minister of Denmark shooting a selfie alongside British Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama? What do we make of that?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's a fun moment. It's certainly - people have had a tremendous amount of time ridiculing the president. You know, they're sort of behaving as though they're, you know, kids at a college football game taking a picture of themselves in the stands. And a lot of people made fun of Obama and even some criticized him on seemingly more serious grounds; perhaps he's offending the sensibilities with his wife sitting a seat away or that he's not behaving residentially.

You know, the photographer who actually took the picture for AFP, said actually: It was a festive mood in the crowd, celebratory in nature. It was very in keeping with what was happening. And that first lady Michelle Obama was actually joking with the Danish prime minister herself moments earlier. So the idea that somehow this was out of tune with what was happening is itself foolish. A reminder that a picture can be worth a thousand words, but it also can be deeply misleading in the moment and out of context.

CORNISH: That's NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik., David thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.