Circumventing the Press 101
When Stephen Colbert gave the keynote address at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, he suggested to President Bush that he ought to hire him. "I think I would have made a fabulous press secretary," Colbert said, looking out at the assembled reporters. "I have nothing but contempt for these people."
These days, a lot of people think the Obama administration is even more hostile to reporters and what they do than that of his predecessor.
When it comes to the relationship between the White House and the men and women assigned to cover it, there are a few things that have been true in every recent administration. The new president takes office promising to be open, candid, and accessible. Not far into his tenure, he grows terribly frustrated with the media, believing they are too focused on trivia, too quick to assume the worst and focus on his missteps, and uninterested in his accomplishments. His staff works hard to find ways to get its message out that don't involve the surly bunch gathered in the briefing room. White House reporters grow frustrated with those they're covering. They bemoan the fact that the administration is secretive, consumed with spin, and unwilling to share the information to which journalists have every right. They believe the White House looks on them as individuals and their central role in the operation of an open democracy with little more than disdain. And the opposition party thinks the media are far too lenient with the administration.
The fact that the pattern is always the same doesn't mean that the particular charges are equally true in every administration. And to hear some people tell it, the Obama administration is the worst ever—more antagonistic toward journalists just trying to do their jobs, more consumed with spin, more eager to circumvent the (sometimes) tough Washington press corps and go to more credulous local media or directly to the public. The latest complaint comes from photographers assigned to the White House, who say they're being kept out of West Wing events in favor of the White House's own small staff of photographers, who allegedly get the good shots while the ones working for news organizations wait in the hall.
Part of the problem is that while the White House has long employed photographers to document events, only of late has it been so easy for them to disseminate their pictures, via Whitehouse.gov, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media. That puts the photojournalists in much more direct competition with the official White House photographer, particularly since by the time their photos appear the next day in the newspaper, his shots of the same event have been available on the web for hours.
So not letting them into some events seems like a needlessly hostile move toward a group of people already predisposed to be unhappy. Much like the other journalists working the White House beat, photojournalists assigned there don't have much opportunity to do what feels like real journalism. Most of what they photograph is staged—the President shaking hands with a foreign dignitary, the President giving someone a medal, the President tousling the head of an adorable youngster—so if they feel they're being prevented from doing even that, you can understand their frustration. Likewise, reporters may grow so hostile toward administration spokespeople in the briefing room partly because there's so little room for enterprising reporting in the White House. You spend most of your time waiting to be handed the news, and if what you're handed is too filled with spin, you start looking for reasons to puncture it, even if what you're getting worked up about turns out to be pretty inconsequential.
Speaking about the photographer's gripes, the National Journal's Ron Fournier (who is to conventional wisdom and false equivalence what Walter White was to crystal meth) told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, "this is a propaganda outfit, that they do put out government sponsored propaganda, and they are running a government-sponsored media organization." In fairness to the Obama administration, there are some places they haven't gone that the Bush administration did, like giving secret payments to columnists to pen favorable columns about their policies, or producing video packages that were aired on local-news programs around the country without identifying them as products of the government. "Propaganda" is usually little more than spin you don't agree with.
That being said, there's no question the Obama administration has been unusually adversarial with the press. As a Washington Post story described it in May, "Reporters have grumbled for several years about being ignored, dismissed and even insulted by White House press officials. More than usual, the White House's relationship with the press corps has been marked by simmering tension and even mutual contempt." No administration in American history, not even Bush's, has been as aggressive in going after people who leak sensitive information to the media. Reporters may sometimes sound like Captain Renault—shocked, shocked that the government is spinning—but they were right to be shocked when it was revealed earlier this year that the Justice Department subpoenaed phone records from the Associated Press as part of a leak investigation.
Prior to 2009, only three government officials had been indicted under the Espionage Act for leaking information to the press in the entire history of our country. The Obama administration has indicted seven, counting two contractors (one of whom is Edward Snowden). As a sobering report written by former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie for the Committee to Protect Journalists argues, the crackdown on leaks has produced a qualitative difference in the way Washington works, beyond the standard suspicion and resentment that flows back and forth between the administration's communication staff and the White House press corps. One journalist after another told Downie that the crackdown on leaks has left government officials more fearful than ever before, chilling the flow of information that allows reporters—particularly those working in realms touching on national security—to give the public insight into what the government is doing. It's small wonder, when even before Snowden's revelations, the administration created the Insider Threat Program, an effort with McCarthyite overtones intended to enlist federal workers all across the government in keeping tabs on their co-workers for signs they might be leaking to the press.
That's a lot more troubling than the question of whether White House photographers can get their own shots of the president chatting with the winners of last year's NCAA water polo championship. And yes, the administration spends a lot of time getting its message out through new and old media channels, and does so skillfully. But the things that look like propaganda aren't the real problem. The problem is what we're not hearing.