White House press corps pushes for more Obama photo opportunities

The White House uses photography to document, convey messages and shape public perception. Kwame Holman reports on a dust up -- and possible truce -- between the Obama administration and the press, who complain their access to capture those moments of the presidency has been greatly limited.


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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: a look at how the White House shapes the presidential image and a possible truce between the press corps and the Obama administration over access to the president.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our story.

KWAME HOLMAN: These are familiar images to many Americans, all captured by official White House photographer Pete Souza. They show private moments: President Barack Obama speaking with Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, or lunching with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

But many others were taken while news photographers covering the president were excluded, such as during Mr. Obama's Air Force One flight to South Africa with former President George W. Bush.

Such examples have caused a simmering feud between the White House and the press, with photographers and reporters arguing their access to the president is more restricted than in the past.

McClatchy Newspapers' senior White House correspondent, Steven Thomma:

STEVEN THOMMA, McClatchy Newspapers: We expect a small group of journalists, at a minimum, to be allowed into the room in the White House or elsewhere when he's meeting with a foreign leader, when he's meeting with his Cabinet. We are granted access less and less since this White House took over in 2009.

KWAME HOLMAN: Of course, there are some remarkable moments the press never would be asked to witness. But others are not so extraordinary, and there's the rub, says Thomma, president of the White House Correspondents Association.

STEVEN THOMMA: Increasingly, as they release their own photos and videos of these events, it underscores to us, as a press corps, that they know these are of public interest.

KWAME HOLMAN: The tension spilled into White House Press Secretary Jay Carney's regular briefing last week.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: Complaining about this...

QUESTION: From your end, that you think it's a -- you think this has not been -- is that a fair reading...

(CROSSTALK)

JAY CARNEY: I would acknowledge that absolutely we need to -- that we're going to work with the press and with the photographers to, you know, try to address some of their concerns.

What I can also assure you is that we will not create a day that has never existed, at least in modern times, when everyone in the White House press corps is satisfied with the amount of access they get to the president. That would be, I think, impossible to expect.

KWAME HOLMAN: Images matter to every White House, according to Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist at Towson University who studies the presidency and the media.

MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR, Towson University: Pictures really send a message to people, that it's something that speaks directly to them. One aspect I think that's involved here in the photographers issue is that the White House photographer is to be a photographer not only of the president, following the president around, but it is of the presidency itself as an institution and giving people a sense of what the presidency is, and what the White House is, how the White House operates.

KWAME HOLMAN: Administrations have been using the tools at their disposal for years to relay the president's message and shape how he is viewed by the public.

MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR: Staff -- a president's staff tend to be risk-averse. And nobody wants to be the person who recommended that the president do the press briefing or take pictures that get turned against them, and have the president say, who recommended this?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR: So nobody wants to be in that position. If the president is the risk-taker, because they -- a White House -- the White House staff reflects the president. It doesn't complement him.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mister Obama was the first president to hire an official White House videographer. Arun Chaudhary followed the president from his 2008 campaign until 2011.

ARUN CHAUDHARY, former official White House videographer: At the White House in the morning, I would probably take a look at the president's schedule, and kind of, from a historical perspective, think, what are the most important things to capture for history?

I think the president has a lot of back and forth with the media, just like all presidents, and that the issues are fundamentally the same. I think what's changed is the media landscape, the way people get news, the manners in which they are able to access it, and, in general, just the economics of how it all works.

KWAME HOLMAN: Carney and White House staff met Tuesday afternoon with Thomma and others from the press corps to seek some resolution. The press organization said it was encouraged by the meeting and that they would continue an ongoing dialogue with White House staff.

The cooperative tone may get an early test. The president leaves Friday for a family vacation in Hawaii, an activity that's given rise in the past to press complaints about access to the president.