Focal shift: Press photogs riled by White House social media

<b>commentary</b> Even if the Obama administration mollifies angry photojournalists, the news media now has to earn its place alongside direct communications through Twitter and Facebook.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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The Obama administration's Flickr page is frequently updated with photos of the president at work.
The Obama administration's Flickr page is frequently updated with photos of the president at work. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Apparently disrupting commerce, education, and entertainment wasn't good enough for the Internet. Now it's disrupting the White House press photographers, too -- and they don't like it.

The photographers are objecting that the Obama administration is saturating its social media channels with its own photographers' photos while often denying access to the White House press corps' photographers, according to a New York Times report.

In a letter, the photographers likened the White House restrictions to the propaganda-heavy style of government-supplied press materials from the Soviet Union: "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."

As a sometime press photographer who's struggled with restrictions, I have plenty of sympathy, and I agree that the White House shouldn't sideline press photographers.

But you know what? Even if the White House obliged, press photographers would still be sidelined. That's because we now live in the age of the Internet.

In bygone days, the press was a critical part of any communications strategy. It's hard to run a printing press and a newspaper distribution network. It's expensive to get FCC licensees and the necessary equipment to operate TV and radio stations. The press found a way to make a business out of it, and it was the first choice for anyone who wanted to amplify a message so that more than just a nearby crowd of people could hear it. If you didn't like how the reporters and photographers handled your news, you could buy advertisements.

With the Internet, it's now feasible for companies, politicians, and organizations to have a direct relationship with their customers, constituents, and the public at large. The press is still useful, but no longer the only effective way to spread a message and to interact.

The Obama administration has taken to e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Vine, Tumblr, YouTube, Pinterest, and to the photojournalists' chagrin, Instagram and Flickr.

Let's not forget Obama's personal pages, too, on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, YouTube Flickr, and Instagram.

Politicians of Obama's prominence can expect thousands or millions of followers. Of course they're going to use social media and any other new technology that comes around to do their jobs. And when it comes to communicating with the public, the White House has a fair point when it argues that the public benefits from this direct communication.

Where the White House goes wrong is in arguing that the direct-communications conduit of the Internet somehow is mutually exclusive with press access. There's also a public benefit to photojournalism's ability to present the full visual truth of an event, not just the portion of it that's good PR.

No matter how accommodating the politicians are to the fourth estate, though, the relatively easy days when the news media dominated communications are over. The press has to prove its value over the Internet's direct communications.