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Photographers Protest White House Restrictions
By MARK LANDLER
A mutiny has erupted among photographers who cover President Obama over what they say is the White House’s increasing practice of excluding them from events involving the president and then releasing its own photos or video.
On Thursday, the White House Correspondents’ Association and 37 news organizations submitted a letter to the press secretary, Jay Carney, protesting what photographers said amounted to the establishment of the White House’s own Soviet-style news service, which gets privileged access to Mr. Obama at the expense of journalists who cover the president.
“As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens,” the three-page letter said, “officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the executive branch of government.”
The Obama administration has embraced social media as a way to get its message to the public beyond the traditional news media. Senior officials post tweets and blog items, while the chief White House photographer, Pete Souza, posts photos of the president on Facebook, Flickr and Instagram, often minutes after they are taken.
The White House defended its policy, arguing it is not logistically feasible to give photographers access to every event. The deputy spokesman, Josh Earnest, said, “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.”
“I understand why that is a source of some consternation to the people in this room,” Mr. Earnest said during the daily White House briefing. “But to the American public, that is a clear win.”
¶Mr. Earnest faced persistent questioning from reporters who said the White House was setting a precedent on access and was substituting a government photographer for those from news agencies. Mr. Souza, a former photographer for The Chicago Tribune who became close to Mr. Obama when he was a senator from Illinois, referred questions to Mr. Earnest.
The letter cited seven recent examples of newsworthy events from which photographers were banned, including an outdoor lunch for Mr. Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a meeting with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, and a session in the Oval Office at which Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani human rights campaigner, spoke with Mr. Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their daughter Malia.
Administration officials have said these were private meetings. But in all of the cases, a White House photographer recorded the event and posted the pictures on Flickr or other social media sites. Major news organizations regularly publish the photos.
“They’re excluding photographers from events at the White House, which is a problem in and of itself,” said Steve Thomma, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. “But now they’re sending in their photographers and video crews and then releasing the photos and video. That sets up their own media operation.”
Tensions between the photographers and the White House have simmered for months. They flared during Mr. Obama’s visit to South Africa last summer, when photographers were allowed to take a single shot of the president in Nelson Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island, but were excluded from the cell when he hugged his daughter Sasha. That moment was caught by Mr. Souza and widely distributed.
White House photographers have historically captured private moments of the president, with his family or conferring with advisers in the Oval Office or the Situation Room. During the debate over the civil war in Syria, Mr. Souza’s images of internal meetings provided a revealing account of the tensions felt by the president and his staff.
But the news organizations argue that the White House has expanded its restrictions to everyday activities, like the time when Mr. Obama went for a swim off Panama City, Fla., in 2010 to demonstrate that the water had been cleaned up after the BP oil spill.
“The way they exclude us is to say that this is a very private moment,” said Doug Mills, a photographer for The New York Times who has covered the White House since the Reagan administration. “But they’re making private moments very public.”
¶In a tense meeting late last month with Mr. Carney, Mr. Mills and other board members of the White House Correspondents’ Association showed a stack of photos that they said illustrated the problem.
“I said, ‘Jay, this is just like Tass,’ ” Mr. Mills said, referring to the Soviet state news agency. “It’s like government-controlled use of the public image of the president.”
White House blocks access to Obama events, news groups say
BY ANITA KUMAR
Presidents often look for ways to get their own messages out. But media experts say Obama’s administration has developed an aggressive strategy to use social media, including government-sponsored websites and blogs, as well as Twitter, Instagram and Flickr accounts, to circumvent the media’s constitutional duty more than its predecessors have.
“You are only seeing what they want you to see,” said Lucy Dalglish, the dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest defended the release of photos and videos, saying the practice helps Obama live up to his pledge of transparency by allowing the public to have greater access to the inner workings of the administration when it’s not feasible for news media to be in the room.
“What we’ve done is 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,” Earnest said. “To the American public, that’s a clear win.”
He said the news organizations’ protests were just part of the natural tension between journalists and those they covered.
“The fact that there is a little bit of a disagreement between the press corps and the White House press office about how much access the press corps should have to the president is built into the system,” he said at the daily White House news briefing. “If that tension didn’t exist, then either you or we aren’t doing our jobs.”
Relations between Obama officials and journalists have further deteriorated this year.
News reports last spring indicated that the Justice Department had secretly seized the telephone records of reporters at the Associated Press and investigated a Fox News reporter as a potential criminal for doing his job.
In the most recent situation, the news organizations stressed that they’re referring only to presidential activities of a “fundamentally public nature,” not private or restricted events, including ones that may affect national security. But the White House often says the closed events are private, even though it releases its own photographs of the events.
Examples cited in the letter are Obama’s meetings with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on July 10, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on July 29 and Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai on Oct. 11.
In each case, journalists weren’t allowed – and sometimes were unaware – of the event. The White House later released written summaries of the events, along with photos taken by a government photographer.
On Thursday, the presidents of the American Society of News Editors and the Associated Press Media Editors sent a letter to their members urging them to stop using handout photos and video from the White House.
“We must accept that we, the press, have been enablers,” the letter says. “We urge those of you in news organizations to immediately refrain from publishing any of the photographs or videos released by the White House, just as you would refuse to run verbatim a press release from them.”
It’s unclear how many news organizations use handout photographs from the White House. McClatchy-Tribune Information Services generally doesn’t do so unless they were shot in areas that the media don’t expect to have access to, such as the Situation Room or the private residence areas of the White House.
Harry Walker, the director of the McClatchy-Tribune Photo Service, said opening access to events was “the foundation for journalism, not just photojournalism.”
The letter was signed by 38 news organizations, including all the major broadcast and cable networks, wire services, online services and newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and the McClatchy Co., which owns 30 daily newspapers across the nation.
The White House Correspondents’ Association and White House News Photographers Association also signed the letter. McClatchy’s government and politics editor, Steven Thomma, is the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.
The letter, which was addressed to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, a former reporter for Time magazine, requested a meeting to discuss the issue.