In another blow to President Barack Obama’s transparency pledge, major news organizations and associations are protesting the White House policy of banning news photographers from covering President Barack Obama in certain official events, while releasing official White House photos and videos of such gatherings.
And now the White House is trying to frame such moves as a “win” for transparency.
President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks during a dinner in honor of the Presidential Medal of Freedom awardees at the Smithsonian Museum of American History on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci) AP Photo/ Evan Vucci
“Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties,” the journalists said in a letter to White House 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.”
The letter, dated Nov. 21, also made clear this is not traditional.
The White House Correspondents’ Association announced the letter Thursday, joining the nation’s four major TV networks, national newspapers and wire services, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Associated Press Managing Editors, the White House News Photographers Association and other news companies.
“To exclude the press from these functions is a major break from how previous administrations have worked with the press,” the letter states.
It also states, “You are, in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases.”
On Jan. 21, 2009, one day after taking office, Obama said, “Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”
The White House on Thursday tried to turn the lack of journalist access, however, into an example of being more transparent.
“What we have actually done is used a range of new technologies to provide people greater access to the president,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said during the White House press briefing. “There are certain circumstances where it is simply not feasible to have independent journalists in the room when the president is making decisions. So rather than close that off to the American public, we are giving the American people even greater access to behind the scenes footage or photographs of the president doing his job. I understand why that is a source of some consternation in this room. But to the American public, this is a clear win.” [Emphasis added]
Earnest continued: “That is people having access because of new technology to things they’ve never seen before. That’s something we remain committed to and we will continue to do. But that has never been viewed internally here at the White House as a substitute for the important work that’s done by free and independent journalists.”
The Obama Justice Department has been criticized since May for labeling Fox News reporter James Rosen a “co-conspirator” in a leak investigation and for obtaining phone records from Associated Press journalists.
Interestingly, on Wednesday, when presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, Obama praised Bradlee for “reminding us that our freedom as a nation rests on our freedom of the press.”
The letter listed seven instances the press should have been allowed to attend:
• On July 10, 2013, the President met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
• On July 11, 2013, the President met with the Co-Chairs of the U.S. – China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
• On July 29, 2013, the President met with former Secretary of State Clinton (White House photo also distributed via Twitter).
• On July 30, 2013, the President and Vice President met with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
• On August 26, 2013, the President met with African-American Faith Leaders.
• On September 2, 2013, the President met with Senators McCain and Graham.
• On October. 11, 2013, the President and family members met with Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai, a person of great public interest.
“While certain of these events may appear ‘private’ in nature, the decision of the White House to release its own contemporaneous photograph(s) suggests that the White House believes these events are, in fact, newsworthy and not private.”
It goes on, “The right of journalists to gather the news is most critical when covering government officials acting in their official capacities,” the letter said. “Previous administrations have recognized this, and have granted press access to visually cover precisely these types of events, thus creating government transparency. It is clear that the restrictions imposed by your office on photographers undercuts the President’s stated desire to continue and broaden that tradition.”
The groups asked for a meeting to make the case face to face for a change in policy.
There are also significant constitutional issues, the letter said, citing Supreme Court precedent.
“Moreover, these restrictions raise constitutional concerns. As the Supreme Court has stated, the First Amendment protects ‘the public and the press from abridgment of their rights of access to information about the operation of their government,’ Richmond Newspapers Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555, 584 (1980).”
“The fact that there is no access whatsoever only heightens those concerns,” the letter adds. “As one court has noted in considering a similar restriction: ‘The total exclusion of television representatives from White House pool coverage denies the public and the press their limited right of access, guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.’ Cable News Network, Inc. v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., et al. 518 F.Supp. 1238, 1245 (N.D. GA 1981).”
You can read the letter in full below: