FREEDOM OF INFORMATION: Obama’s Orwellian Image Control

THE Internet has been abuzz over the spectacle of President Obama and the prime ministers of Britain and Denmark snapping a photo of themselves — a “selfie,” to use the mot du jour — with a smartphone at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa on Tuesday.

news_word_cloud_small FREEDOM OF INFORMATION: Obama’s Orwellian Image Control

Leaving aside whether it was appropriate, the moment captured the democratization of image making that is a hallmark of our gadget-filled, technologically rich era.

Manifestly undemocratic, in contrast, 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.

Instead, here’s how it’s done these days: An event involving the president discharging his official duties is arbitrarily labeled “private,” with media access prohibited. A little while later an official photo is released on the White House Flickr page, or via Twitter to millions of followers. Private? Hardly.

These so-called private events include meetings with world leaders and other visitors of major public interest — just the sorts of activities photojournalists should, and used to, have access to.

In response to these restrictions, 38 of the nation’s largest and most respected media organizations (including The New York Times) delivered a letter to the White House last month protesting photojournalists’ diminished access.

A deputy press secretary, Josh Earnest, responded by claiming that the White House had released more images of the president at work than any previous administration. It is serving the public perfectly well, he said, through a vibrant stream of behind-the-scenes photographs available on social media.

He missed the point entirely.

The official photographs the White House hands out are but visual news releases. Taken by government employees (mostly former photojournalists), they are well composed, compelling and even intimate glimpses of presidential life. They also show the president in the best possible light, as you’d expect from an administration highly conscious of the power of the image at a time of instant sharing of photos and videos.

By no stretch of the imagination are these images journalism. Rather, they propagate an idealized portrayal of events on Pennsylvania Avenue.

If you take this practice to its logical conclusion, why have news conferences? Why give reporters any access to the White House? It would be easier to just have a daily statement from the president (like his recorded weekly video address) and call it a day. Repressive governments do this all the time.

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.

It’s true that photojournalists will on occasion capture embarrassing gaffes (think of Gerald R. Ford’s stumbling on the steps of Air Force One or Mr. Bush’s reaching for a locked door at a news conference in China). These images show — surprise — that the president is human.

Allowing media access and providing official photos are not mutually exclusive. News outlets can choose (as The Times has occasionally done) to use an official, or handout, photo when its news value is compelling and the photo is taken in a place logically off limits to journalists, like the private residential quarters of the White House. But The Associated Press rejects a vast majority of White House handouts because they show newsworthy activities of public significance, in locations where we strongly believe journalists should have access.

Until the White House revisits its draconian restrictions on photojournalists’ access to the president, information-savvy citizens, too, would be wise to treat those handout photos for what they are: propaganda.

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION AND MEDIA ACCESS

It’s a core component of journalism in a democracy: making sure the public gets the information that it has a right to know. The Associated Press is committed to this principle, and as part of our efforts, we have been a leading and aggressive advocate of the importance of transparency and accountability in government.

In the U.S., we have taken definitive steps to address the growing number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) denials. Beginning in 2009, we increased our internal FOIA training and strengthened our overall approach to filing appeals, responding to denials and negotiating with government agencies. AP takes on investigative projects that are heavily reliant on FOIA and state open records requests and works with reporters internationally on cases that deploy both U.S. and foreign-based laws. AP’s use of the Freedom of Information Act has led to the release of critical information that the government would have preferred to keep secret.

Along with our in-house counsel, our reporters and editors take three key actions around Freedom of Information:

1. Assert relevant rights under federal and state constitutions and Freedom of Information laws to obtain access to news—going to court, if necessary, to enforce those rights

2. Monitor compliance by government agencies and officials with FOI laws and report infractions and shortcomings

3. Defend the statutory and constitutional rights of journalists to do their work free of government interference or intrusion.

In addition, AP stepped up training for outside groups, advocated for the strengthening of FOIA and engaged the services of the new Office of Government Information Services for the resolution of certain appeals that were denied by agencies.

AP’s FOIA work in 2009 and 2010 has been honored with the Eugene Pulliam First Amendment Award, which recognizes a person or organization that has fought to protect and preserve one or more of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.