The Obama administration got into yet another fight about transparency on Thursday when a coalition of news organizations called on the White House to stop banning photojournalists from ostensibly “private” events, only to release carefully selected photos taken by its own photographers on social media. “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 White House Correspondents Association said in a letter, adding, “You are, in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases.”
The administration insisted it does nothing of the sort, then showed how seriously it takes journalists’ concerns by tweeting out a passive-aggressive photo. Pete Souza, Chief Official White House photographer, captioned the photo above “Pres Obama signs a bill in the Oval Office as press photographers take photos.”
The media organizations never suggested that they aren’t allowed to photograph President Obama (though the National Journal reports that references to the Soviet press agency Tass were thrown around in a heated meeting with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney). Their argument is that photo coverage of “government officials acting in their official capacities” should not be limited to photographers on the government payroll whose job is to make the president look good. The letter listed a number of recent events the White House deemed off-limits to the press, but not its own photographers, including his lunch with Hillary Clinton, a meeting with John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and an Oval Office visit with Pakistani human-rights activist Malala Yousafzai.
At Thursday’s press briefing, White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest argued there are “certain circumstances” when journalists must be excluded, and the fact that photos of the events are shared on social media is “a clear win” for the American people. However, the WHCA said previous administrations “have granted press access to visually cover precisely these types of events, thus creating government transparency.” If there are legitimate national security issues that prevent journalist from being present at these events, perhaps the bigger concern is why the president is discussing state secrets with Malala and his 15-year-old daughter.