Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: White House shouldn’t restrict media photo access

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

An image of President Barack Obama and his daughters Malia and Sasha was released more than a year ago by the White House. They’re cozy and smiling on a couch and look as if they’re settled in for some quality family time as they watch Michelle Obama address the Democratic National Convention.

But were they? Or was it a one-minute photo shoot?

We don’t know anything other than what the White House press operation told the public. We don’t have independent verification. This exemplifies why McClatchy Newspapers, the parent of The Sacramento Bee, is protesting access limits placed on news photographers who cover the White House.

McClatchy and 37 other news organizations sent a letter Nov.21 requesting full press access to White House events. The letter to Press Secretary Jay Carney reminded him that previous administrations granted such access. It detailed several examples of restricted events that reveal the breadth of the limitations, including an Oct.11 meeting between Obama, members of his family and human rights activist Malala Yousafzai.

Restricted access for photographers is just one of the challenges journalists face with the Obama administration, according to James Asher, McClatchy’s Washington bureau chief.

“The president and his appointees have cut the flow of information that the nation needs to assess how the current administration is doing its job,” he said. “Federal employees are being prosecuted and ordered to spy on co-workers in an effort to ensure public information is never leaked to the press. The Freedom of Information Act is ignored, and its requirements that the public’s business be done in the open are skirted.”

Asher said the overall impact is “not good for our Democracy.”

In the aftermath of the letter to Carney, The Sacramento Bee and every McClatchy news organization announced they would not publish handout photographs supplied by the White House. A possible exception might be significant news images of events historically closed to the media because of security issues.

When reporters and photographers cover such events, they are representing the public and its right to watchdog government officials. They provide independent verification that something happened. The photos are authentic and they ensure transparency.

What happens without that access?

As Mark Morris, our senior editor for multimedia, puts it, documentary photography captures real moments. Photography whose purpose is to shape public opinion might, instead, create “real moments.”

To illustrate that difference, Morris pulled out a photograph of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush during his campaign for president in 1988. Bee photographer Randy Pench was on the campaign trail with Bush and had limousine access. He shot the picture shown here of Bush, who looks exhausted after taking a break for a run in Medford, Ore.

We know the exercise was real and the moment was real. We witnessed it, documented it and shared it with the public.

“Getting that kind of access would be impossible today,” Morris said. “But it is important to tell the story of who the president is, who the candidate is.”

“I know that’s a real moment. I don’t necessarily know that Obama with his daughters is a real moment,” Morris said.

The Bee published the photo of Obama and his daughters Sept. 9, 2012, to illustrate a New York Times story about the daughters’ importance to Obama’s image. The photo was described in the story as released from the White House via Twitter just as Michelle Obama got to the part of her speech where she shared how the president spends time with them at day’s end.

Maybe the image is authentic. Who knows? Yet the photograph and the timing of its release appear calculated to bolster the president’s image as a family man.

The photographer who shot the image, Pete Souza, was a longtime journalist before joining the White House. He has friends on The Bee’s staff and a lifetime of respect from other journalists in the country. So why, then, not simply trust him?

We ask ourselves the same question about many journalists who left the industry during downsizing the last seven or eight years. In Sacramento, former Bee journalists populate the public information staffs of many public and private institutions, including SMUD; California State University, Sacramento; UC Davis; the Legislature, and many California state departments. They were liked and respected while at The Bee. They shared strong values of transparency and verification.

Yet their jobs now are different. And I don’t kid myself that the values we hold dear in the newsroom are more important to former journalists than doing their current job well. Friendships still exist, but professional respect now includes an acknowledgment that we are on different teams.

They can choose to publish on their own. Those shaping public opinion – the White House and every other government office – have the ability to bypass journalists to get a message out to the public through social media or government websites.

That message might look transparent, or even authentic. But without independent journalists providing the reporting, we won’t ever know.

So it’s time, Mr. President, to fully support the rights of the press to document White House activities. We in the media are not asking to be invited to meetings affecting national security, or into the private residence. But for all other activities, we’d like you to respect the public’s right to know and to honor the tradition of your predecessors to grant necessary access.

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