Dean Boardman fights to improve media’s White House access

David Boardman, dean of the Temple University School of Media and Communication, is helping lead the charge to improve journalistic access to the White House.

David Boardman

Boardman, president of the American Society of News Editors, and a group of leaders representing the Associated Press Media Editors, the National Press Photographers Association, the White House Correspondents’ Association and the Associated Press met with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and other officials in December to discuss the importance of allowing journalists to photograph the president.Boardman believed there were positive steps taken at last year’s meeting, but, on Feb. 21, the White House did not allow photojournalists to document President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, and instead released its own image.

In this Q-and-A, Dean Boardman talks about why this continuing fight for access is so important.

What’s the issue at hand?

The message of transparency was a drumbeat throughout President Obama’s first term. Even though administration officials pledged that they would be the most open in history, in a lot of ways, they have been one of the most closed. In particular, they have closed doors to photojournalists and are instead asking media organizations to use images shot by the White House photographer. It’s the assessment of many professional journalism groups that President Obama may be the most closed to press photography of any president in the history of photojournalism.

Why aren’t they letting photojournalists in?

We believe it flows naturally from their very adept use of social media. It’s part of what got him elected and certainly has been used very effectively since. The White House has generally circumvented the people’s press and simply goes right to the public with their message. In other regimes around the world, we call that propaganda.

What are these organizations asking for?

We’re not demanding to be in the Oval Office while the president is having a one-on-one conversation with the leader of another country. But when they come out as they always do for a photo op or when the president signs a bill into law, we want to be there. There have been many occasions when only the White House photographer was allowed to take pictures, which the White House then distributed.

What steps are you taking?

As president of the American Society of News Editors, I wrote a letter to our membership asking the newspapers to stop using White House photography. They only way we’re going to have leverage is if we stop publishing them.

What’s the difference between a White House photo and a photojournalist’s photo?

Let’s say there was a moment of tension between the president and a visiting dignitary and there is some sort of a slight. Professional photojournalists are trained to read body language and look for detail to find those telling moments. The White House isn’t going to distribute that image.

But isn’t any photo better than none at all?

It’s not up to the White House to determine what images the people see of their president. It might mean not having a photograph of the president in the newspaper for some period of time, but in the long run it’s very much in the readers’ interest. We’re not naïve about the fact that any number of web sites like BuzzFeed will pick up the hand-out photos and use them in the mean time.

What’s next?

Leaders of the organizations involved in the initial meeting are getting together and planning for the next meeting of a smaller working group of association leaders and White House officials. To the White House’s credit, they are staying in the conversation. I’m optimistic that we’re going to be able to work out an agreement.

What is the lesson that will come out of this situation?

It’s less about photography and much more about the role of the press as the watchdog of government. The White House will continue to use social media to communicate directly with the people. Some people would say that makes the job of the press less relevant, but I say that makes it more important than ever. It’s the media’s role to help people navigate through what’s fact and what’s propaganda. It’s certainly what we’re trying to instill in our students so they can be powerful and influential communicators going forward.

by Jeff Cronin