It might seem like another day in Tea Party Land when a conservative columnist accuses the Obama White House “airbrushing history” like the “Stalin era” Soviet Union. But the columnist isn’t a conservative. It’s Dana Milbank of the liberal Washington Post, complaining about what’s happened to White House news photographers.
He’s not alone. A New York Times photographer has publicly compared Team Obama to the Soviets’ Tass news agency. What is going on?
As the wheels come off the Barack Obama Hope and Change Bus, the White House is now restricting access to the very media that have done little but throw roses at his feet over the last five years. Many presidential “photo opportunities” now allow only an official White House photographer, causing the media to stir with “tensions” and write letters of protest.
"Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties," the White House Correspondents Association and other news organizations said in a letter to Press Secretary Jay Carney. "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."
All of which begs the question: Why? Can anyone recall the last time a news photographer has taken a photo that’s caused Obama any embarrassment? Apparently, Obama isn’t satisfied that the photos aren’t hostile. They have to make him look good – or he’ll have his guy do it.
The New York Times reports that Obama photographer Pete Souza is an “almost constant companion” of the president. He was even allowed to get married in the White House Rose Garden. Of the 315 trips Obama has made on Air Force One, by the count of CBS News hound Mark Knoller, Souza has traveled on 313. Souza posts his photos on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram shortly after he takes them, and news agencies run these official pictures as “news.” As the media’s protest letter points out, “You are, in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases."
The most famous visual press release was the Situation Room photo of Obama and his top aides watching the takedown of Osama bin Laden in 2011. That photo was airbrushed to obscure a classified document next to Hillary Clinton, which raises the next question: Has Souza retouched other pictures? He claims he hasn’t, but with today’s crackerjack technology, it’s hard to tell, or believe him.
Milbank mocked White House spokesman Josh Earnest for claiming “There are certain circumstances where it is simply not feasible to have independent journalists in the room when the president is making decisions.”
Many pictures aren’t about decision-making. They’re positive propaganda photos. Milbank pointed to ones showing Barack and Michelle waving to a sea of people, with the Washington Monument in the background, on the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King's march; Obama swimming with one of his daughters in the Gulf of Mexico to show that the water is clean after the BP oil spill; and Obama sitting alone on the Rosa Parks bus, in the same row where Parks sat.
The December 1 Times story on the media protest displayed one from July capturing the Obama family listening to a tour guide inside Nelson Mandela’s old prison cell on Robben Island.