Media Miffed at White House Access

Photojournalists upset about lack of candid photos from South Africa trip.

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Relations between the White House and the news media are deteriorating again because of rising frustration among journalists with lack of access to President Obama. Journalists say White House officials are trying to manage the news and substitute propaganda for real news coverage, while Obama advisers say they are trying to be more open but the media will never be satisfied.

The hard feelings boiled to the surface at Thursday's daily media briefing at the White House as miffed correspondents jousted with press secretary Jay Carney. The immediate issue was the tightening of news photographers' access to Obama and the White House's release of official photographs instead.

[READ: Air Force One Peacemaker Among Presidents]

During Obama's trip to the funeral of former South African President Nelson Mandela this week, tensions increased because news photographers weren't allowed to take pictures of Obama as he traveled aboard Air Force One with former President George W. Bush and their wives, along with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Official White House photographs were released, however.

On Wednesday, Santiago Lyon, director of photography at The Associated Press, published an op-ed essay in The New York Times arguing that the administration was going too far in disseminating visual "propaganda."

Former President George W. Bush shows Hillary Clinton and others his paintings on a tablet on Air Force One.
Former President George W. Bush shows Hillary Clinton and others his paintings on a tablet on Air Force One.

"Manifestly undemocratic ... is the way Mr. Obama's administration – in hypocritical defiance of the principles of openness and transparency he campaigned on – has systematically tried to bypass the media by releasing a sanitized visual record of his activities through official photographs and videos, at the expense of independent journalistic access, Lyon wrote.

He added: "The official photographs the White House hands out are but visual news releases. Taken by government employees (mostly former photojournalists), they are well composed, compelling and even intimate glimpses of presidential life.

"They also show the president in the best possible light, as you'd expect from an administration highly conscious of the power of the image at a time of instant sharing of photos and videos. By no stretch of the imagination are these images journalism. Rather, they propagate an idealized portrayal of events on Pennsylvania Avenue."

[READ: George W. Bush Paintings Bring 'Air Force Awkward' Together]

Carney, a former journalist with Time magazine, said he has been meeting with representatives of the White House Correspondents' Association to resolve the problems. "I can commit to you that we are working and have been working on expanding access where we can," Carney said. "Let me be clear, that is the view from the very top."

But journalists say that while Carney claims he is listening to their concerns, he hasn't taken action.

In November, the WHCA and 37 news organizations sent Carney a letter arguing that White House officials were "blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the executive branch of government."

Reporters are also frustrated by what they consider other attempts by the White House to limit media access to Obama, such as holding relatively few news conferences.

It's all part of the long-term tug of war between the White House and the press corps, a battle that has been waged for many years.

More News:

  • Photos: World Leaders Pay Tribute to Mandela in South Africa
  • Nelson Mandela Praised by Congressmen Who Opposed Anti-Apartheid Act
  • Opinion: Nelson Mandela's Enduring Spirit of Forgiveness
  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at and on Facebook and Twitter.