The third installment of my series on the roles journalists play through their work is going to be mostly commentary on a news story I recently watched.
Last night on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams (after my last post, I’m guessing you can figure out what my nightly world news program of choice is), a story ran about the Obama administration’s lack of transparency. Recently photos were released of President Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Bush sharing a jovial chat over George W.’s painting hobby.
Although it’s a fresh breath of Air Force One to see two presidents from different parties having a civil conversation, the photos have started a discussion. This administration over any other has barred journalists from meetings usually open to the press. White House-released photos on the executive’s Twitter, Flickr and Facebook pages are often the only ways to see what goes on inside 1600 Penn because photojournalists rarely get a chance to get photos for their publications, which makes news sources rely on White House-approved images to accompany its stories.
Are these images (taken by White House photographers) are candid glimpses into a president’s life or subtle instruments of propaganda?
On one side, we’ve been privy to candid shots from administrations going back more than a century ago. I used one in my post discussing JFK’s death of the 35th president’s children playing in the Oval Office. These pictures, mostly taken by White House-sanctioned photogs, are a tradition. The president as a citizen has the right to edit what photos the world may see; that’s a right afforded to every American through privacy laws.
…The president is not exactly like you or I. Just this week I watched The American President, a 1995 romantic comedy by Aaron Sorkin (my man!) that explores how little the president has a private personal life. Of course in the end, the press and opposing politicians admit that he can date whomever he wants after Michael Douglas gives them a dressing-down in the briefing room. In the real world, however, that’s not the case. We are overly concerned with the image a president puts forward. They say Abraham Lincoln would never have gotten elected because he was odd looking and walked funny. Chris Christie, if he has any hope of becoming a candidate, should lose weight. President Obama bought a Portuguese water dog for his daughters — he must be trying to get favor with President Anibal Cavaco Silva.
Another argument I’ve had with myself (I do that sometimes. If you see me debating out loud with no one around, don’t run or call the white coats; I’m just prepping a new blog post) is that some of these moments caught on White House-sponsored film would not have been the same with a crowd of photojournalists crushing the moment. Ah, but if you’re a good photojournalist, you know how to extricate yourself from the story. The best photographers I knew at Mizzou possessed the superpower of invisibility.
And that ability is key when photojournalists assume another journalistic role, that of being a documentarian for future generations.
The journalist as a historian:
(Please note that “journalist” refers to those who work for a publication and have mastered the art and science of reporting the news through words and images. This does not include “paparazzi,” cannibalistic photographers that hunt celebrity scandal for both sustenance and sport in order to compensate for their own incapability to make a lasting mark on the world. See the following picture.)
Think back to some of the most iconic photos you’ve ever seen. The monk burning in the square. The Afghan refugee with brilliant blue eyes. American soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima. These were all moments of history caught on film by journalists who saw it as their job to document events for “the folks back home.” In some ways, I think they knew these photos would go beyond that to affect the folks of the future, too.
So although I understand the president as an American citizen has the right to keeping intimate moments of his life private, I am more inclined to point at some of the meetings he has closed off to journalists as ways that he is hindering our ability to fulfill our duty as history-recorders. It’s true that his openness through social media has made the White House more accessible to the Internet generation. But it has also made the government less accessible to the press, which was charged through the First Amendment to be a watchdog for public interest. How can journalists keep an eye on its government when the government regulates everything it (and the public) sees?
The most truthful photos aren’t the ones taken by a professional photography in a studio setting. When the firefighters raised the flag at Ground Zero after 9-11, the photographer didn’t say, “Wait, hold on. Let me shift the lighting. And you, lift your chin a bit higher, because you’ve got a double-chin thing going on.” The photojournalist, equally as dusty and overwhelmed, saw the moment, captured it with the click of the button and encapsulated history in pixels. All that without the president giving the go-ahead.
Rarely do journalists get to make history — at least we can record it.