Thursday, December 12, 2013


I have a lot of political journalists in my Twitter timeline, and they've been very angry lately about the restrictions placed on photographers covering President Obama. The White House Correspondents Association complained about the restrictions last month, and today there's a New York Times op-ed on the subject by Santiago Lyon, director of photography for the Associated Press.
... Manifestly undemocratic ... is the way Mr. Obama's administration -- in hypocritical defiance of the principles of openness and transparency he campaigned on -- has systematically tried to bypass the media by releasing a sanitized visual record of his activities through official photographs and videos, at the expense of independent journalistic access.

The White House-based press corps was prohibited from photographing Mr. Obama on his first day at work in January 2009. Instead, a set of carefully vetted images was released. Since then the press has been allowed to photograph him alone in the Oval Office only twice: in 2009 and in 2010, both times when he was speaking on the phone. Pictures of him at work with his staff in the Oval Office -- activities to which previous administrations routinely granted access -- have never been allowed.
Yes, this is extreme -- but the Obama administration's approach to press photographers differs from the practices of other recent administrations only in degree. This administration practices total control; previous administrations attempted near-total control, and used press picture-makers for their own ends.

Lyon looks back to what he regards as a better past:
American presidents have often tried to control how they are depicted (think of the restrictions on portraying Franklin D. Roosevelt in his wheelchair). But presidents in recent decades recognized that allowing the press independent access to their activities was a necessary part of the social contract of trust and transparency that should exist between citizens and their leaders.

Consider these moments: John F. Kennedy's son peeking out from under his desk; Richard M. Nixon flashing a two-armed V-for-victory sign as he departed office in disgrace; Ronald Reagan waving from a hospital window after cancer surgery to assure America that he was O.K.; George W. Bush's astonishment on learning of the 9/11 attacks, and his remarks to rescue workers at the rubble of the World Trade Center days later.
I'm not sure why that photo of Bush at Ground Zero is on the list -- it was taken by Eric Draper, who was Bush's official White House photographer -- he was Bush's equivalent to Pete Souza, the Obama photographer whose work supplants that of press photographers now.

Yes, the other photos on Lyon's list were taken by press photographers -- but past presidents controlled access to themselves as much as possible, and had the upper hand in their relationship with photojournalists. Consider the story of Stanley Tretick, the photographer who took that picture of JFK and John-John:
... Tretick went on to do 68 stories on the Kennedy family for Look magazine, but the relationship wasn't always smooth. As Tretick soon realized, Kennedy looked closely at the photographer credits of all pictures of himself to make a mental list of which camerapersons to avoid. Traveling all across the country during what would be then the closest presidential race of the 20th century, Kennedy and Tretick played a cat and mouse game when it came to photo opportunities. Kennedy avoided being photographed eating, drinking, or combing his hair, realizing as a former journalist himself the awkwardness of such shots.... "He plays a game, enjoys the game," Tretick said later of his attempts to catch Kennedy off guard, "but when he loses, he never cries about it." ...

Of course, Tretick and Kennedy worked their magic best when Kennedy was on his guard, as fully conscious of imagery as those photographing him. Scenes of adoring throngs pressing in on candidate Kennedy, every hand hoping just to brush his, give the viewer a sense of just how powerful Kennedy's charisma came across....

Jackie protected her children's privacy fiercely, and JFK deferred to her on most requests from the press. But when a cover photo by Tretick of JFK riding on a golf cart with his nieces and nephews became a smash, Tretick pressured for photos of the president with his children. In October 1963, a few months after the death of the Kennedy's baby Patrick, Jackie went on vacation to Greece with her sister, Lee. Seizing the moment, Kennedy allowed Tretick to photograph him and "John John" playing together before bedtime in the Oval Office. Thus, the iconic shot of John, Jr. peeking out from beneath the president's desk -- a hideaway the two and a half year old called his "secret house." ... When Jackie returned from Greece, she resigned herself to the deed as done, permitting it as part of JFK's reelection drive for the 1964 presidential election....
So while administrations shouldn't freeze photojournalists out, Stanley Tretick was not exactly Woodward and Bernstein with a Nikon -- he was identified by JFK early on as a photographer who could be useful to him, he and JFK had a relationship that was of mutual benefit, and the iconic photo of the president and his son happened because the president wanted some warm-fuzzy pictures out there in advance of his reelection campaign.

That's how the game is regularly played, as we know from the classic book on the subject, Mark Hertsgaard's On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency. A typical Hertsgaard anecdote:
After Reagan visited the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea in November 1983 (fresh from his triumph in Grenada), the evening news shows, newspapers and newsweeklies across the country were filled with inspiring photos of the Leader of the Free World, dressed in a flak jacket, staring down the Communists through field glasses. As was their habit whenever Reagan made a foreign trip, [deputy chief of staff Michael] Deaver and his aides visited the site in advance, accompanied by representatives of the major networks, to plan the media event down to the smallest detail.

"I saw the toe marks for him," Andrea Mitchell of NBC later recalled. Terming the DMZ visit "one of the great advanced events of all time," Mitchell added, "When he didn't stand on his toe mark he was signaled by one of the advance men to move over into the sunshine."
And this, from Deaver himself in Hertsgaard's book:
In the 1984 campaign the Defense Department and the Air Force continually wanted us to do a rollout on the B-1 bomber. And of course one of the negatives on Reagan was that he was more likely to get us into a war, so I was always shying away from military kinds of events. But jobs were just as important during the campaign in California, and the B-1 accounted for something like 40,000 jobs in southern California, so I agreed to do a stop at the Rockwell plant in Palmdale. But I said, across the B-1 I want the biggest sign you can make saying "Prepared for Peace." So you never really saw the B-1. All you saw was the President with this big sign behind him.
So when Lyon touts the photo of Ron and Nancy peering out from his hospital room after his cancer surgery, it's safe to assume that the press was cordoned off in a particular spot, the Reagans were sent to the window, and Ronnie and Nancy were urged to smile and wave. He knew what to do. He was an actor, and this was a process of following a script.

The same could be said of most images of presidents in our lifetime.


aimai said...

Great post, Steve. A very complete rebuttal. I have to say that I'm just revolted at the idea that anyone thinks that the press should have full, unfettered, access to the Oval office and Obama's work schedule at all--what is to be "captured" there? Scenes of a guy signing shit, talking on the phone, occasionally farting or putting his feet up? Its a workspace, for christ's sake, if he's doing anything spontaneous there its pretty much none of our business. If any employer were to demand full time access to photographing and recording a worker we would look on it as a horrendous violation of personal privacy. In fact its somethign we should be pushing back on in the corporate and factory world. What makes generic press photographers any different?

I'm not talking about on the campaign trail although I think that some of the same rules apply. A person is entitled to try to control and own his own image and the settings in which his privacy is violated, and for what reason. Even if they are a public figure. All the more so on his "first day of work" in the Oval office.

Victor said...

Still, Steve, imo, they've got a point - "Total control" is worse than "near total control."

And this does feed into the meme of, 'This President promised to have the most transparent administrations in history - but all he and his administration do, is keep secrets, and run secret programs.'

I'm not sure that President Obama wants that as part of his legacy - or, at least as large a part of his legacy as some historians will make it out to be.

Not that I blame him, with the MSM we've got now, but there's got to be some mid-point between transparency and secrecy.

aimai said...

I fail to see what transparency has to do with the right of professional photographers to take staged shots and then complain that they were/were not staged for them.

Photography is not photojournalism, and as it turns out very little photojournalism is really journalism in the sense that it reveals or exposes that which is hidden.

More cute photos of presidents and their kids is not some form of righteous journalistic exposure--its just telling a story that some people (the presidents friends) want told as opposed to another story that the president's enemies want told.

Look at the current right wing hysteria over the supposed cold looks that Michelle gave Obama over his selfie shot with the danish prime minister? How does this photo add to the "transparency" of his administration?

The washignton press corps wants to cover the presidency as though the president were a ritual and sacred king. They want to photograph and image his getting up, his pooping, his sleeping like the french court dealt with its kings. But this kind of hagiography and this kind of invasion of privacy comes from a different kind of government (a royal one) and seeks to satisfy the prurient and servile interests of a different kind of populace --a populace that wants to believe the President is a good daddy, or the populace that wants to believe the President is a demonic usurper who has taken the good daddy's place and whose traces of evil can be frozen by the camera. Neither of these attitudes is appropriate to a democracy, by the way. The president is just a hired functionary, hired to do a job. His personal foibles and his private moments are his. Not ours.

Philo Vaihinger said...

"Undemocratic" does not mean "whatever conflicts with what the press wants."

The press primarily wants to sell its product and secondarily to sell its politics.

That's good for the country and for democracy about as often as GM's desire to sell cars is.

And the press is not to be trusted to look out for democracy or the national interest one inch further than GM.

Victor said...

I take back what I said. You're right.

This is no different than the assholes in the Press Room whining about access, and that the President doesn't talk to them enough. Or, the he didn't ask X for a question, that special little snowflake, and instead took one from Y, on a competing paper/network/cable tv channel, etc.

aimai said...

Oh, thank you Victor. I should have taken my rant to my own site but I found what you said very thought provoking--because a lot of people are acting like the press is some kind of truthteller to power. Mostly its the press itself making this argument but its being reported by the rest of the press very uncritically. It gets my goat because almost definitionally nothing could be less journalistic than a complaisant, court, press pool all trying to take the same picture with a slight bit of flair.

Leah said...

Thank-you aimai and steve; at last, an intelligent challenge to the BS about visual access to the President somehow being a fulfillment of democracy. You too, Victor, for understnding and Philo.

Looks to me like the photographers want to get in on the current wave of Obama trashing.

If they want to pursue democratic values a la a real photojournalist like Eugene Smith, who did major pieces for LIFE magazine about a rural doctor and an African-American mid-wife, to mention only two examples, they might think about shedding some visual light on the long-term unemployed, or what is happening to Americans who are coping with the cuts to food stamps, or covering the plight of the actual people who run food banks, and have made it clear that they can't fill in for those cuts.

On the other hand,the President is probably going to pay a political price, or at the least the SCLM is going to try to make him pay one.

Ten Bears said...

Hmmmm... let us see... the Multi Millionaire Mainstream Media has a both decared and demonstrated racist anti-Obama obstructionist aganda, has mercilessly attacked him calling not only for failure but demise from the moment he even hinted at a run for the Presidency, taken his words and works not to mention his ancestry. out of context and twisted into the most bizarre set of conspiracy theories in the history of conspiracy theories, and he won't let the dog-fuckers photograph him. Can't say as I blame him.

No fear.