In a meeting with White House press secretary Jay Carney, Fournier reports, a New York Times photographer compared the administration's official photography output to the work of TASS, the old totalitarian Telegraphic Agency of the Soviet Union.
"As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist's camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the Executive Branch of government," reads a letter delivered today to Carney by the WHCA and several member news organizations including The Associated Press and The New York Times.
Official White House photographer Pete Souza and his colleagues are, it's true, propagandists, as Fournier writes—who "are paid by taxpayers and report to the president. Their job is to make Obama look good." (The use of "by taxpayers" is a bit of a misapplication of the Outrage Lexicon here, since Fournier is ultimately trying to present the official photographers as representatives of monolithic government power, not as public servants.)
How did we get to this point? Allow Fournier to explain:
A generation ago, a few mainstream media organizations held a monopoly on public information about the White House. Today, the White House itself is behaving monopolistic.
Specifically, the complaint is that the White House is keeping the independent mainline press from getting its fair share of the hottest, most viral-friendly images of the Obama presidency. Of all the objections you might lodge against press restrictions, this might be the least persuasive, and the most metaphysically absurd. The Fourth Estate is being cut out of the traffic that comes with celebrating the presidency.
Fournier goes through the offenses case by case:
Before the 50th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial, the White House image team met with photographers covering Obama and agreed that the media could shoot pictures from behind the president and first lady – the best place to capture the magnitude of the crowd and moment. When the photographers arrived, a White House aide reneged on the promise.... The White House had a monopoly on the day's most potent image.
Fournier shows another image where Pete Souza "hogs the center frame," so that only the White House gets the close-up image of Obama tightly surrounded by adoring troops. The free press is stuck with the longer shot, in which the crowd's attention is more divided and ambivalent and the mechanics of the photo opportunity are on display.
But it gets even more upsetting:
When the Obama family adopted Bo, media photographers were allowed to take pictures of the dog. Not so when Sunny arrived. This photo was taken by the official White House photographer – a small sign of how far the White House is moving to push independent photographers out of the picture.
How will democracy survive without independent photos of the second White House dog? Then there's a meeting between Obama and Hillary Clinton, apparently over brunch, and the president and First Lady welcoming some child tourists, and a side-by-side comparison of a deeply boring journalistic photo of George W. Bush visiting a shrine in the Holy Land and a deeply boring Souza propaganda shot of Obama visiting the same site.
Finally there's Obama looking pensively out the window of the bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat—"One of the most compelling and historic images of the Obama era," Fournier writes. Imagine what the public might know if only there were more different angles of the president visiting a museum display.
(We pause here for an urgent report from National Journal earlier this week, on Obama's failure to travel to Pennsylvania for the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address: "'Serious question,' National Journal's Ron Fournier asked. 'What is on his schedule that is more important than Gettysburg anniversary?'")
Is it the job of the White House press corps to take "compelling" or "potent" images of the president? Nobody tell AFP's Saul Loeb.
[Images via National Journal; top image via Associated Press, for which Ron Fournier was chief political correspondent]