Tensions have been building in recent weeks between journalists in the White House press pool and President Obama's Press Secretary Jay Carney over a perceived reduction in photographic access to the President in the Oval Office and during overseas trips.
Earlier this month, following the President's trip to South Africa for the funeral of civil rights icon Nelson Mandela, photographers repeatedly questioned Carney about why they were denied access to Obama when he spoke during the funeral and also during much of the flight on Air Force One.
According to reports in PDN Pulse, Carney was quoted as saying that the photographers in the press corps are being slowly replaced by White House photographers. The press-pool shooters, he said, are still a relevant part of a free press, but that their role is no longer needed for every occasion.
“This is part of a bigger transformation that’s happening out there that’s driven by the ability of everyone to post anything on the internet free of charge so that you don’t have to buy that newspaper or subscribe to that wire service to see that photograph,” Carney said, in the PDN Pulse story.
The testy exchange with reporters is the latest escalation of strained relations between the White House and the press corps. In November, 38 news organizations asked for a meeting with Carney about what they saw as a lack of photographic access to the President as he worked in the Oval Office.
“We write to protest the limits on access currently barring photographers who cover the White House,” said the formal letter that was sent to Carney. “We hope this letter will serve as the first step in removing these restrictions... 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 went on to say that restrictions on photographers “raise constitutional concerns” and may result in legal action on First Amendment grounds. The letter was signed by all major TV news networks, wire services and major newspapers, and has been endorsed by the American Society of Media Photographers and the National Press Photographers Association.
Carney responded that the official White House photographer, Pete Souza, serves the public interest by releasing photos of Obama performing his duties via social media. The press corps, however, has derided Souza's photos, calling them nothing more than “visual press releases” and no substitute for free and unfettered access for an independent press corps.
The concerns of the White House photographers were echoed by other groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists. A recent report from the CPJ said that, “Despite President Barack Obama¹s repeated promise that his administration would be the most open and transparent in American history, reporters and government transparency advocates said they are disappointed by its performance in improving access to the information they need."