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White House Refused to Allow Still Photography at Bush Speech

PDN Online | January 12, 2007 
Daryl Lang

NEW YORK The White House broke with tradition Wednesday night and refused to let photojournalists shoot still pictures of the president at the podium after his prime-time address on the Iraq war.

As a result, newspapers and wire services had little choice but to run low-quality frame grabs from the video of the speech. An official handout photo from the White House, which most news outlets rejected, was the only other option. Caught in a bind on deadline, some newspapers ran the official White House photo with no disclosure that it was provided by the government.

The Associated Press and Reuters, who refused to accept the handout photo, sent their members notices explaining that frame grabs from the White House video pool would be their only photo coverage of the speech.

"Reuters News Pictures regrets that due to restrictions imposed by the White House, Reuters will not be able to provide still photographs from President Bush's White House address on Iraq," the Reuters bulletin said.

Normally after the president gives a televised address, a pool of news photographers takes pictures of the commander-in-chief standing behind the podium. The press was notified late Wednesday that photographers would not be allowed in after the Iraq address, says J. David Ake, assistant chief of bureau for photos at the AP in Washington. Ake says no reason was given for the limited access.

Ake says the AP always transmits video stills of a presidential address, and many outlets choose to run them because they are an accurate portrayal of the speech. "The difference [Wednesday] was there was no alternative," Ake says.

Dennis Brack, a longtime White House photographer and president of the White House News Photographers Association (WHNPA), calls the limited access "unacceptable" and says it is very unusual for a presidential address to be closed to photographers.

"It's not the first time I'm sure, but it's very infrequent, and I've been around since LBJ's time," Brack says. "The speech was a very historic speech of news value, and they elected to manage it as a public relations function."

The Los Angeles Times and USA Today were among the papers that published a blurry video still of the president on their front pages Thursday. The New York Times ran a video still -- complete with the C-SPAN logo -- as its lead art.

Other papers ran the handout photo, which was taken by official White House photographer Eric Draper. The Washington Post ran it on the front page credited to "ERIC DRAPER THE WHITE HOUSE." Like many papers, the Post also illustrated its story with a photo of troops in Iraq.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran the handout photo as its lead art and crediting it to "ERIC DRAPER/McClatchy Tribune," citing a news service that transmitted the photograph. The Journal-Constitution's front page ran no disclosure that Draper is employed by the White House.

Chris Stanfield, director of photography for the Journal-Constitution, says the paper does not normally run White House handout photos. Since this handout photo was almost identical to what people saw on TV, "It didn't bother me as much last night." Still, Stanfield says he would have preferred to run a shot from a different angle, such as a wide shot of the room the president was in, if such a picture had been available.

Last year the WHNPA complained that the Bush administration was too often closing events to photographers and asking the press to rely on official photographs instead. The WHNPA says the practice allows the White House to only show the images it wants people to see. Additionally, official White House photos tend to be posed and of little news value, the WHNPA says.

Of course, controlling the photo coverage isn't the same as controlling the story. Thursday's New York Daily News dutifully reproduced the official handout photo of the president's speech on its front page underneath the headline "SORRY ... BUT I'M SENDING 21,500 MORE OF YOU OFF TO WAR."


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