“You are, in effect, replacing independent journalism with visual press releases,” said a letter from the White House Correspondents’ Association to the White House published in last Saturday night’s New York Times. The correspondents’ complaint that too many events are closed to the press, captured only by the lens of Pete Souza, President Obama’s longtime (and, from my perspective, quite skilled) photographer, or members of his team.
Thus, there is a single documentation source for many presidential events, limiting, the journalists say, an independent press, even as digital pathways make it easier than ever to distribute and use the photos.
It is very clear from the article that the reporters are not angry at Souza, who was once a photographer on the staff of the Chicago Tribune.
From the article:
“The core issue is the White House uses his images and disseminates them to the public, and they become the only historical document of events,” said J. David Ake, the assistant bureau chief for photos at The Associated Press.
Doug Mills, a longtime White House photographer for The Times, added: “It’s not about Pete. It’s that we see Pete’s pictures of things that we’re not getting access to, and that’s incredibly frustrating for all the photographers who cover the White House.”
David Hume Kennerly, the official photographer for President Gerald R. Ford, said: “Everybody is trying to come to terms with the impact of social media. I don’t know what the right balance is, but I understand his position in terms of the historical record.”
Indeed, Mr. Souza’s principal job is to document the presidency, and all of his photographs, published and unpublished, are filed in the National Archives …
White House officials say …the public benefits from behind-the-scenes images, like Mr. Souza’s dramatic shot of Mr. Obama and aides watching the raid on Osama bin Laden in 2011.
“When there are decisions to release photos, those are made by the press office,” said the deputy press secretary, Josh Earnest. “We’ve always acknowledged there is a difference between what Pete does and what independent photographers do.”
That difference was evident in the case of the Bin Laden photo, which the White House digitally altered to blur out a classified document on a table in front of Hillary Rodman Clinton, then the secretary of state. Mr. Souza said he tried to get the document declassified to show it in the image, and when his request was rejected, he opted to airbrush it because otherwise the White House would not have released it.
Mr. Souza bridles at the suggestion that the White House has doctored other images. “I would never allow any of my pictures, or pictures which are taken by the photographers who work for me, to be airbrushed,” he said.
How do we know if something is an objective primary source versus a propaganda source? How does trust for institutions (either the White House or news organizations) play into this? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this system for today’s citizens? For tomorrow’s scholars?
The article could make for a great current events companion to a debate about the Constitution, Freedom of the Press, perceptions of propaganda throughout Presidential history (see also: Grover Cleveland’s secret surgery for mouth cancer!), or democratic transparency and social media’s role in it.