By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — Is the Obama White House airbrushing history?
It was a hallmark of the Stalin era: Fallen Soviet leaders vanished from official photographs. Nobody accuses President Obama of such subterfuge (well, nobody except for those who believe he forged his birth certificate), but a change in longtime practice in the White House has raised questions about the integrity of images Americans see of their president.
The White House has increasingly excluded news photographers from Obama’s official events and is instead releasing images taken by in-house photographers, who are government employees. These photos often appear online and in newspapers, even though they lack the same standards of authenticity that govern those taken by photojournalists.
“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,” the White House Correspondents’ Association, joined by the Associated Press and other news organizations, wrote in a letter to White House press secretary Jay Carney last week. “You are, in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases.”
New York Times photographer Doug Mills likens the administration’s actions to Tass, the Soviet Union’s news agency.
The most famous of the photo press releases was the image from the White House Situation Room on the day U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden; the image was digitally altered so that material on the table in front of the secretary of state could not be seen.
Maybe that alteration was an exception. And photojournalists don’t expect to be granted access to the Situation Room. But the doctored image raises the question of whether other photo releases are altered, too; in the age of Photoshop, it’s easy — at the start of the year, Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s staff (clumsily) altered a group photo of Democratic women in Congress to add four absent members. And often, it’s undetectable.
I asked Pete Souza, a White House photographer, whether other photos of his have been altered. He sent me to deputy press secretary Josh Earnest, who said that altering photos would be done only to protect classified information and that he didn’t know of other instances. He defended the photo releases generally, telling reporters, “There are certain circumstances where it is simply not feasible to have independent journalists in the room when the president is making decisions.”
Making decisions? Here are some of the big moments at which the White House replaced independent eyeballs with in-house eyeballs: The president and first lady waving to a sea of people, with the Washington Monument in the background, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s march; Obama swimming with one of his daughters in the Gulf of Mexico to show that the water is clean; Obama embracing one of his daughters in Nelson Mandela’s prison cell; the president touring the West Bank church on the spot where Jesus is thought to have been born (news photographers were allowed to shoot images when George W. Bush toured that location); Obama alone on the Rosa Parks bus, in the same row where the civil rights icon sat; Obama shaking hands on Veterans Day with the oldest living World War II veteran; Obama shaking hands with Mitt Romney in the Oval Office; the first lady and the president greeting kids the day White House tours resumed this month.
In the past few months, the White House has substituted in-house photography for independent images of Obama meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the co-chairs of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, Hillary Clinton, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, African-American faith leaders, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham and Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai.
You don’t have to alter photographs to make them misleading. Releasing photos selected to show the president in the most flattering way can also create a less-than-honest portrait of history. These often go out on the White House’s Flickr account and are picked up for free and repackaged by disreputable news services and published by unsuspecting media outlets. News photographers are angry because it threatens their livelihood. We all should be concerned that it smacks of propaganda.
“To exclude the press from these functions is a major break from how previous administrations have worked with the press,” the correspondents’ association protested.
I doubt the Obama White House is heavily doctoring photos. But there are birther types out there accusing the White House of superimposing Obama into places where he wasn’t. Why give them ammunition?
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.