Working press not happy with access to Obama

The White House press corps is negotiating with the administration over access. Photojournalists were not allowed to take photos of Obama on his first day of office, and no TV cameras or photographers were allowed at the second oath of office. -DB

First Amendment Center
Jan. 23, 2009

News organizations that cover the White House sparred with the Obama administration over access issues for photographers and rules for briefings.

Representatives from Obama’s press office held a conference call with photo editors, who are concerned that the administration prefers distributing photos taken by a White House photographer in cases where photojournalists have been permitted access in the past. It was unclear whether the two sides had reached any accommodation.

The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse refused to distribute photos taken by the White House of the new president on his first day in the Oval Office because of the dispute. Still photographers were also not given access to Obama’s do-over oath of office administered Jan. 21 by Chief Justice John Roberts and an economics meeting yesterday.

Television-network bureau chiefs also protested the exclusion of video cameras from the second oath of office.

“We’re in an awkward phase and there will be bumps in the road,” said Christopher Isham, CBS News Washington bureau chief. “Hopefully they will be speed bumps rather than obstacles.”
Four reporters witnessed the oath of office and shared their observations with others, and a White House photo was released.

“We think it was done in a way that was upfront and transparent,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a briefing when asked why video cameras were not present. Pressed on the matter, Gibbs said, “We would have had to get a bigger room.”

The Associated Press also questioned why reporters were not allowed to use the names of administration officials giving a background briefing on issues regarding the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba.

Background briefings are hardly new in Washington, and were frequently conducted during the Bush and Clinton administrations. But the AP wanted to establish early with the administration that it is important to get information on the record as often as possible, said Michael Oreskes, AP managing editor for U.S. news.

“Information is a lot more valuable to the public if you know where it’s coming from,” Oreskes said. “So we try very hard in all source situations to identify sources as fully as we can.”
Gibbs did not directly address the issue when asked about it later, saying, “I hope that you all found the exercise that we did the morning helpful.”

Meanwhile, President Obama won an important personal victory: He gets to keep his BlackBerry.

Obama will be the first sitting president to use e-mail, and he has been reluctant to part with his ever-present hand-held device. Its use will be limited to keeping in touch with senior staff and personal friends, said Gibbs. The BlackBerry victory is a big concession. Obama said earlier that he was working with the Secret Service, lawyers and White House staff to keep the device, despite concerns expressed by the Secret Service and the National Security Agency.

“I’ve won the fight, but I don’t think it’s up and running,” Obama told reporters.

Gibbs said the presumption from the White House counsel’s office is that Obama’s e-mails will be subject to the Presidential Records Act, which requires the National Archives to preserve presidential records. But he also said there were exceptions for “strictly personal communications.”

Gibbs said the president would limit his BlackBerry use, and that security had been enhanced to ensure that Obama could communicate in a way that’s protected. Only a small number of senior staff members and personal friends would be given his e-mail address.

Previous presidents chose not to use e-mail because it can be subpoenaed by Congress and courts and may be subject to public records laws. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton didn’t e-mail while in office, although Bush was an active e-mailer before becoming president.

Gibbs said the president believes that using the device is an effective way to keep in touch with people without “getting stuck in a bubble.” Those who have access to the president’s e-mail will be briefed about appropriate communications, Gibbs said, without offering specifics.

On his second full day on the job, Obama took a walk through the White House briefing room that startled members of the White House press corps. With little notice — some news outlets heard an announcement, others never did — the president appeared in the press-briefing room, causing a wild scene.

“Good to see you guys. I just wanted to make sure that I had a chance to say hello,” Obama said on his second full day on the job.

Reporters started running toward him, not wanting to miss a single word. Obama made it to the back of the briefing room, in a narrow hallway, where he shook hands.

“I gotta say, it’s smaller than I thought,” the president said as he looked around for the first time. He introduced himself to those whom he didn’t already know from the long campaign trail and said it would take a little while to learn everyone’s names. The president then continued on, walking by the news outlets’ booths on the same floor. Obama asked about the reasoning behind why certain news outlets had work space where they did. When he got an answer involving the intricacies of press corps protocol, Obama responded: “This is worse than the Middle East here — who’s sitting where and all that stuff.”

When a reporter tried to quiz him about a lobbyist chosen for a top Defense Department job, Obama begged off. “I came down here to visit. I didn’t come down here — this is what happens. I can’t end up visiting you guys and shaking hands if I am going to get grilled every time I come down here.”

Obama was willing to field some lighter questions. Yes, he’s discovered the gym in the White House residence. No, he hasn’t played basketball yet on the outdoor White House court because it’s been too cold.

“We will try to have a relationship that’s respectful and where you guys feel like you’re actually getting answers,” Obama told the press.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press