Obama's photo oops: Why the White House is being assailed for blatant propaganda

Jon Terbush
The Week

On Wednesday, President Obama will engage in the hallowed presidential ritual of pardoning a turkey, a ceremony that has spawned some truly wonderful images over the years. And when Obama spares the life of either Popcorn or Caramel — hurry, there's still time to vote for which one lives! — there will be no shortage of assembled press waiting to snap pictures of him doing so.

However, the White House will also have its own staff photographer on hand to ensure it gets an official, Obama-friendly rendition of the big event. And that, according to a growing chorus of press organizations, exposes a serious problem of calculated image management that verges on outright propaganda.

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It's not just the turkey pardoning. News organizations have griped for some time about the Obama White House's restrictions on photographing the president, and its careful distribution of self-flattering pictures — an effort enhanced by Obama's enormous social media presence.

The White House is "simultaneously restricting access of independent media while flooding the public with state-run media," as National Journal's Ron Fournier put it. Fournier compiled a list of instances in which the White House not only curtailed press access to events, but produced images that benefited from inside access, essentially upping the odds that the news organizations would run Obama-friendly images over their own.

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The White House, critics say, is exerting an unprecedented level of control over what the public sees of the president.

The issue has hung over the entirety of Obama's presidency. The Associated Press, Reuters, and AFP all refused to publish White House handouts of Obama being sworn in, calling them, "in effect, visual press releases."

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(CC BY: The White House)

The complaints intensified last week, when the AP and three dozen other news organizations signed a letter to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney likening the White House's in-house photography to Soviet-era government propaganda.

"As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist's camera lens," the letter read, "officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the executive branch of government."

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USA Today and McClatchy took their criticism further, announcing this week that they would no longer run virtually any White House photos. While news agencies still typically run administration-distributed images of places where the press isn't allowed — the Situation Room photos of the Osama bin Laden raid, for instance — they bristle at running official pictures from supposedly public places, like the Oval Office.

Since White House images are produced by a paid staffer who answers to the president, they "lack the same standards of authenticity that govern those taken by photojournalists," wrote the Washington Post's Dana Milbank. Even if the photos are not manipulated, North Korea style, they're still problematic because "releasing photos selected to show the president in the most flattering way can also create a less-than-honest portrait of history," he added.

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The White House, for its part, has brushed off the Stalinist comparisons, saying it has only barred the press from photographing the president when he is "making decisions." And it's argued that flooding the digital world with images of the president is, more or less, a public service.

"We've taken advantage of new technology to give the American public even greater access to behind-the-scenes footage or photographs of the president doing his job," Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.

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Plus, it's not like the White House is forcing citizens to follow the administration on Facebook and Twitter.

So much to the chagrin of news photographers who feel they're being squeezed out, the White House is going to keep promoting the president with cherry-picked images that make Obama look good. As for this Thanksgiving, don't be surprised if you see plenty of pictures of Obama pardoning the victorious turkey — but nothing showing the fate of the loser.

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