Limited press access to the president and White House events is an important issue that goes right to the heart of America's democratic principles. President Barack Obama's White House is not the first administration to try to limit press access, but they have been more restrictive than most of their predecessors.
Last month, the White House Correspondents' Association and dozens of news organizations sent White House Press Secretary Jay Carney a letter protesting the limited access. "Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties," the WHCA wrote. "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."
Instead, the White House has routinely given Pete Souza, the official White House photographer, sole access to the president, then distributed his pictures on the Internet and social media. In its letter, the WHCA said, "You are, in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases." The White House is bypassing the press corps to give the public an unfiltered view of newsworthy events, often deemed "private," provided by one of its own paid employees.
Frustration boiled up at Thursday's White House press briefing as reporters demanded more access. Carney, a former reporter, seemed to struggle with his answers, explaining that the problem was the Internet. "In the past when White House photos were developed and handed out here, news organizations could decide whether their readers would ever see those photos. Now, the White House posts some pictures on the Internet identified as official White House photographs."
But Carney's explanation misses the point. This is not a distribution problem; rather, this is an access problem. And President Obama campaigned on the principles of transparency and openness. It is critical for journalists to cover and report newsworthy events in order to provide the public with an independent account. Previous presidents frequently allowed a small pool of reporters and photographers to cover a portion their meetings and events. That practice should be the rule today, not the exception.
The White House press is right to complain about its limited access to this president. The practices that are used today by the White House press office will become a precedent for the presidents who follow. This is such an important issue that news organizations should avoid using White House photos of events that they are barred from covering.
NBC News' Chuck Todd observed Friday, "Look we're at fault here because we put (the White House photos) up." He said, "We basically give out these visual press releases and that's what they are. And we don't fight this enough." David Gregory, a former White House correspondent and now anchor of NBC's Meet the Press, complained that President George W. Bush often restricted photo-ops only to photojournalists. This is because he feared being asked questions by reporters in these brief encounters. But these photo-ops are often the only time a reporter can ask a president an important and newsworthy question.
According to political scientist Martha Joynt Kumar, of Towson University, President Obama has had significantly fewer brief question-and-answer sessions in the White House than the last two presidents. This is a disturbing trend. Other presidents have realized that, like them or not, it is important to have a good relationship with the White House press corps.
There was no better example than that set by President Ronald Reagan, who spoke of the ongoing friction with the White House press. He once said, "Every president will try to use the press to his best advantage and to avoid those situations that aren't to his advantage. To do so results in a diminution of his leadership powers. The press is not a weak sister that needs bracing. It has more freedom, more influence, than ever in history. The press can take care of itself quite nicely. And a president should be able to take care of himself as well."
In May 2010, President Obama signed legislation that promotes free press around the world, and discourages government control. Mr. Obama, actions speak louder than words.