White House press corps erupts over lack of access to Obama

McClatchy Washington BureauDecember 12, 2013 

A routine daily press briefing at the White House turned raucous Thursday as reporters complained to Press Secretary Jay Carney about the lack of access to President Barack Obama.

The nation’s largest news organizations last month lodged a complaint against the White House for imposing unprecedented limitations on photojournalists and Carney insisted Thursday that the White House was aware of the issue and was working with the groups to improve access.

The issue took on renewed urgency this week when the White House released official photographs of Obama and former President George W. Bush aboard Air Force One on the trip to Nelson Mandela's memorial service. News photographers were also aboard the plane, but were not allowed acess.

Reporters noted the two presidents spent nearly 40 hours on the flights and it was an historic occasion -- a sitting and former president and their wives, flying to South Africa together to attend a world figure's memorial service.

"You understand why we would consider it a missed opportunity," CBS' News' Major Garrett said to Carney.

The dustup came as Santiago Lyon, a longtime photojournalist, and vice president and director of photography at The Associated Press, said in a New York Times opinion piece that the administration "has systematically tried to bypass the media by releasing a sanitized visual record of his activities through official photographs and videos, at the expense of independent journalistic access."

Carney insisted the White House is "working and have been working on expanding access where we can."

Steven Thomma, president of the White House Correspondents' Association said the group has had two meetings with White House press staff to discuss "ways to improve access and rein in what we see as competition from White House staff" and plans a third by the end of the year. That meeting will include representatives of the broad media consortium that wrote to complain about the situation, including McClatchy.

Thomma, who is also McClatchy’s government and politics editor and a senior White House reporter, said the association was thankful to White House staff for working to get the press into the stadium for Mandela's service after South African officials had said all such press would be held off site.

But, he said the association regrets that the White House did not allow news photographers to "witness and record the historic meeting of the presidents and first ladies aboard Air Force One, while releasing White House photos.

"Air Force One is U.S. territory, our pool was aboard, and inviting them in for even a few moments would have been easy and the right thing to do," Thomma said.

Carney said that "from the president on down, everyone here believes strongly in the absolute necessity of a free and independent press to cover the presidency, to cover the government, to cover Washington."

But veteran reporters challenged him and said the administration has taken unprecedented steps to restrict access, preferring to send out its own version of events.

"Having covered presidents since Bush 41, can say Obama/team least accessible to WH correspts'," tweeted Alexis Simendinger, a reporter for Real Clear Politics.

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