The Associated Press' Photo Double Game

The Associated Press has huffily declined to cover tonight's Fox News Channel GOP "debate" in South Carolina on the grounds that Fox won't let it take photographs during the debate—only before and after. But it does cover presidential addresses under precisely the same conditions.

The debate tonight is a joke, since only one real candidate is showing up. But it's still news, right? The AP won't touch it with a ten-foot pole, though, because—according to an AP bulletin announcing that the news service is declining to cover the event—sponsors Fox News Channel and the South Carolina Republican Party have imposed conditions that "violate basic demands of newsgathering." To wit:

This is to inform you that The Associated Press is not planning to cover Thursday night's Republican presidential candidate debate in South Carolina because of restrictions placed on media access. The debate sponsors, Fox News Channel and the South Carolina Republican Party, will only allow photos to be taken in the moments ahead of the debate and not during the event itself.

How dare they! How will American voters know what's happening during a debate that is being broadcast live, on television, in color, if AP photographers can't take snapshots as it happens? What's the GOP trying to hide?

It's a testament to the AP's stiff-spined, hard-nosed, even-handed approach to newsgathering that it categorically refuses to cover any and all televised political events in which photography during the event itself is prohibited. Unless you're talking about presidential addresses. For those, they'll just stage fake photos after the speech and hope no one notices the difference:

Other photographers who work at the White House told Poynter.org that since the Reagan era (and possibly before) it has been the standard operating procedure that during a live presidential address, still cameras are not allowed to photograph the actual event.

"AP understands why the still photographers are not allowed into the live address area and the captions disclose that these are re-enactment situations as well," says David Ake, the Associated Press' assistant bureau chief for photos in Washington.

So the AP (and Reuters, which is also boycotting the debate), understands why it can't photograph presidential addresses—the pictures you see of those speeches were actually taken after the events, as the president of the United States helpfully fakes it for the cameras—but walks off in a snit when Fox News and the GOP make the same demand. Maybe if right after the debate ends the candidates stay on stage and just banter meaninglessly so the AP can get its precious photos—oh wait, that's what they'll already be doing, amiright?

An AP spokesperson did not immediately answer questions about why the news service treats the two events differently.

UPDATE: David Ake, assistant chief of the AP Washington bureau/photos, has given us a statement explaining why the AP treats the two events differently. And the answer is basically, "It was always this way."

A presidential televised address to the nation is a specific and isolated event usually of extreme importance. They are rare. When they happen in the Oval Office (the usual location), we shoot the actual speech from the Rose Garden through the window. Afterward they move the television camera and teleprompter out of the way so we can make the head-on picture. We also move a frame grab of the actual speech and we are clear in the captions that the photo made from the head-on position is after the televised address.

This practice has gone on since several administrations back.

We shoot the posed picture only because of all of the requests we get for a photo and not a frame grab. We offer both to photo editors.

We have had greater access to this SC debate in the past. For the SCGOP/FOX primary debate on Jan. 10, 2008 we had three photographers in the room and we moved over 80 pictures on the wire. Many showed the candidates behind the podium gesturing as they answered questions. So clearly we were in the room while the news was happening. This time we are not being afforded the same opportunity.

[Photo via Getty Images]