Obama vs. the Press Corps: Revolt Against 'Draconian Restrictions' and White House 'Propaganda' Photos

WASHINGTON -- In complaints that one might hear of a third-world government, the chorus of press-freedom advocates and journalists decrying the Obama administration's access and attitude toward the media is just growing louder.

At Thursday's White House press briefing, 17 testy minutes were dedicated to peppering press secretary Jay Carney about access to the president for press photographers.

Santiago Lyon, a longtime photojournalist and head of the photo department at the Associated Press, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on Thursday slamming the White House's "draconian restrictions" on press photographers and branding its handout photos "propaganda."

Lyon said the "undemocratic" policies of the administration that pledged to be the most transparent ever began on Day One of President Obama's first term, when the press corps was banned from photographing Obama during his first day on the job. Since then the media have only gotten two photo opportunities with Obama alone in the Oval Office, both times when the president was speaking on the phone.

The White House has pointed to the stream of photos from its official photographer, Pete Souza, available on social media, but Lyon argued that the quality of the photos misses the point.

"By no stretch of the imagination are these images journalism. Rather, they propagate an idealized portrayal of events on Pennsylvania Avenue," he wrote. "If you take this practice to its logical conclusion, why have news conferences? Why give reporters any access to the White House? It would be easier to just have a daily statement from the president (like his recorded weekly video address) and call it a day. Repressive governments do this all the time."

Lyon's observations come a few weeks after a photographers' revolt of sorts at the White House. The White House Correspondents’ Association and 37 news organizations joined in sending a letter to Carney stressing that previous administrations have recognized "the right of journalists to gather the news is most critical when covering government officials acting in their official capacities."

"It is clear that the restrictions imposed by your office on photographers undercut the President’s stated desire to continue and broaden that tradition," they wrote. "To exclude the press from these functions is a major break from how previous administrations have worked with the press."

At the core of the protest is the simple fact that "journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the president while he is performing his official duties."

"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."

Journalists were especially irked at how, the day that letter was sent, the White House tweeted an official photo of news photographers being allowed to take pictures of Obama signing a bill at his desk.

USA Today announced it wouldn't run official White House photos unless there was some extraordinary national security circumstance that meant press corps photographers could not be present. Other news agencies stressed policies that handout photos are only to be used in exceptional circumstances.

The photo storm has been brewing for some time, but really caught fire a month before the photojournalists' letter, after the Committee to Protect Journalists -- an organization that often focuses on the ill treatment of reporters in repressive regimes -- issued a scathing report charging that the White House "curbs routine disclosure of information and deploys its own media to evade scrutiny by the press."