The White House says it is ending its long-running practice of having presidents re-enact televised speeches for news photographers after major addresses, a little-known arrangement that fed suggestions of fakery when President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden.
NEW YORK — The White House says it is ending its long-running practice of having presidents re-enact televised speeches for news photographers after major addresses, a little-known arrangement that fed suggestions of fakery when President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden.
On May 1, after Obama’s live, late-evening address from the East Room of the White House, five photographers were ushered in to shoot pictures as the president stood at the podium and reread a few lines of his announcement, a practice news organizations have protested for years.
The Associated Press and other news outlets noted in captions with the photos that they were taken after Obama’s address, but many editors, including at The Seattle Times, overlooked that information while writing their captions on deadline. That raised questions of whether news organizations were staging an event.
The issue also drew attention when Reuters’ Jason Reed, one of the photographers who took part, blogged about the assignment, saying the president “re-enacted the walkout and first 30 seconds of the statement for us.”
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The White House stepped in this week.
“We have concluded that this arrangement is a bad idea,” Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said late Wednesday. He said the administration is open to working out a new arrangement with photographers.
The practice of re-enactments has a long history. Washington veterans say President Truman would deliver speeches over radio and repeat them for newsreel cameras. Doug Mills, a New York Times photographer who was on duty May 1, said he has seen every president from Ronald Reagan to Obama take time after a speech so print photographers could get their shots.
News organizations usually disdain White House handout photos, and television “screen grabs” often are of poor quality. But the presence of clicking cameras can be a distraction to a president, particularly in cramped settings, and perhaps to viewers of the speech.
“All it takes is for some photographer to drop something and the president react to it, and it looks terrible on television,” Mills said.
AP, in its photo captions, said: “President Barack Obama reads his statement to photographers after making a televised statement” on bin Laden’s death. Despite that, a survey by the journalism think tank Poynter Institute found that 30 of 50 newspaper front pages that used an Obama photo from the speech “implied or strongly suggested it was an image of the live address.”
Such a caption was used with the photo on The Seattle Times’ front page the morning after Obama’s announcement. Barry Fitzsimmons, the Times’ photo director, said he welcomed the decision to end re-enactments as a way to eliminate the potential for future omissions.
The White House usually has an official photographer on duty, and the administration’s Pete Souza took photos of the real address that night. But news organizations rarely use handouts unless there’s a compelling news value, as was the case with the official photos of the White House Situation Room during the raid that killed bin Laden.
Don Winslow, editor of News Photographer magazine for the National Press Photographers Association, said the White House offered a pool arrangement for national addresses, where one photographer would be chosen and would distribute a photo to colleagues. News organizations rejected it.
David Ake, assistant AP bureau chief for photography in Washington, D.C., said the White House has not approached AP with the idea. But he said single-photographer pools allow only one point of view.
“Single-photographer pools stifle the creativity created by competition among several photographers to make the best storytelling image,” he said.
Fitzsimmons said that, while multiple photographers are preferable, he would be satisfied with a single-photographer pool, which is common for news events with limited access.
Seattle Times staff contributed to this report.