By: Joe Strupp
White House photographers aren’t looking for a handout these days. In fact, they’ve gotten far too many.
While the practice of providing news organizations with staged photos of events involving the president goes back decades, veteran shooters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue say it has become almost a regular occurrence with the Bush Administration. A review of Associated Press archives found that during the entire eight years of the Clinton administration, only 100 handout photos of events were released to the press. During the first five years of Bush’s presidency, more than 500 have been distributed.
The key is that each of these events was closed to news photographers.
“They average about two per week,” said Susan Walsh, an AP photojournalist and president of the White House News Photographers Association, after directing that review. “The White House staff photographer’s role is to document the president. They have now crossed the line and become public relations photographers for the administration.”
She added: “I don’t know the rationale behind it, but there are [handout] events that could clearly include press coverage. The problem with the [photo] releases is that they are often of events that could accommodate press coverage and that previous administrations had allowed press to cover.”
Bush Press Secretary Scott McClellan did not return several calls seeking comment.
Walsh and other photo veterans who criticized the practice said it both limits real news coverage of the president and allows the White House to choose only those images it wants people to see.
“Any handout restricts coverage by the press,” said Dennis Brack of Black Star Publications, who has photographed each president since LBJ. “It curtails our access to events we should be covering with an independent eye and it fools the American public into thinking they are news pictures when they are really public relations pictures.”
Steve Deslich, managing editor for Knight Ridder Tribune Photo Service in Washington, agreed. “When Clinton was in there, they would let other people in,” he said. “But they stick with the handout pictures. We have said, ‘thanks, but no thanks’.”
Walsh, a five-year WHNPA president who has covered the White House since 1997, acknowledged that some events require strict security that may keep news photographers out. But she cited some recent events, such as a Bush visit to a Smithsonian Institution museum and the re-signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act, that were restricted for no apparent reason.
Then there was Bush’s White House get-together last month with those receiving the Kennedy Center Honors, just hours before the event. Walsh said photographers were barred from that meet-and-greet as well. “During the Clinton Administration, we were always allowed to that event,” she said. “The Bush Administration never has allowed it.”
But the opposition to White House-manufactured images is not just a press access issue, photographers contend. They point out the power such an arrangement gives the White House to literally control news.
“If you put five photographers at an event, you will get five different sets of images – the good, the bad and the ugly,” Walsh notes. “One photographer whose images are approved and screened at the highest levels of the White House, you don’t know what images are missing.” She pointed out that, with today’s Photoshop capabilities, images can be doctored any number of ways.
“Would anyone on the word side take a press release and regurgitate it verbatim and publish it in the newspaper as legitimate news,” she asked. “Of course not.”
There is also the quality aspect, which several Washington photo veterans contend is much worse through the White House’s official camera lens. “They are very staged, protective moments and do not have much content interest,” said Jeff Franko, director of photography for Gannett News Service. “We use them because we are not around the White House much. But they are not a whole lot of value.”
Walsh said that is another danger of the increased use of handouts, when news agencies start to use them as though they are news material. She cited a trip aboard Air Force One last fall, when Bush took one of his first flights over the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Although AP, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse were allowed to photograph Bush as he looked out the window at the Gulf Coast ruins, a White House handout photo of him at that moment was also released and used by at least three major newspapers, she said. “Nobody at those papers apparently looked to see where the photo came from,” she said.
Walsh took the photographers’ concerns to McClellan during a meeting in October and admitted that fewer handouts have been used since. But, she said the problem is still too common and has prompted the WHNPA to begin its own three-month review of the practice, which began Dec. 1 “We will be looking at when access is allowed and how many photos are released,” she said. “We want to see if they are of sensitive events or those where we could clearly have been given access.”