When news photographers point and shoot at the White House they are casting a journalistic eye on the scene. Conversely, when the White House offers a handout photo, we see only what the White House puts in the frame. Susan Walsh is the president of the White House News Photographers Association. She searched through archives and determined that in five years of the Bush presidency there had been more than 500 photo handouts…compared with 100 over the entire eight years of the Clinton Administration. Walsh talks with Bob about her findings and the meaning of the image in making history.
BOB GARFIELD: In dealing with his hunting accident, the Vice President froze out the White House press corps, the usual course for a White House that works around the filter of big media. To that end, it also offers a steady stream of press releases and photo handouts to feed the media beast and erode the impulse to do actual reporting. Susan Walsh is an Associated Press photographer and president of the White House News Photographers Association. Last July, after it was announced that there were to be five photo handouts in a single week, Walsh decided enough was enough. She searched through the Getty archives and those of the AP and calculated that in the five years of the Bush Presidency there had been more than 500 photo handouts. Susan Walsh joins me now. Susan, welcome to the show.
SUSAN WALSH: Thank you. A pleasure to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: The White House issues handouts of photos that its own photographers have taken. The news organization gets them. Then what happens to those images?
SUSAN WALSH: Well, typically those press releases just get passed along and basically just put back out there for the television stations, websites and news organizations to publish.
BOB GARFIELD: And do they?
SUSAN WALSH: Yes, quite frequently. And you would never expect a White House press release, no matter how many thousands of them that there are, you would never expect any of those to be published verbatim without any fact-checking or anything. But for some reason, with still pictures they just get put out there.
BOB GARFIELD: So when these still photos are distributed and they show up in newspapers and on television and on the Web and so forth, are they identified as having come from a White House photographer, as opposed to a photojournalist?
SUSAN WALSH: Not always. Sometimes it'll only be credited to the news organization that distributed the photo. Sometimes it'll have the news organization that distributed the photo with the photographer's name, not being a journalist but a White House photographer. So it's very unclear to the reader really where this image came from.
BOB GARFIELD: In November, I talked to Santiago Lyon, who is the AP's director of photography, and, I suppose, one of your bosses. [OVERTALK]
SUSAN WALSH: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: And we talked about the use of military handout photos. Now, it's very clear to me why a military handout photo may tell a different story of war than a photo taken by a real journalist. But when it comes to images of the President sitting at his desk or at the podium of a press conference or, I don't know, playing with his dog, is one photo really going to tell a dramatically different story than another?
SUSAN WALSH: You can have five photographers go and shoot the same event and you'll come back with, you know, dozens of different images. So when you have only one set of eyes capturing one event, you only see it through one perspective. Plus you don't know what was edited out. Did the President trip? Was he sad? Was he happy? Was there something else going on that we didn't get a chance to see and to document? Here's an example. The night that John Roberts was to be nominated for Supreme Court Justice, the White House originally wanted to have that as a handout photo. Of course, all the news organizations went up in arms, and it ended up being what they call an "expanded pool coverage," so there were photographers allowed in there. Now, as you might remember, the television coverage pretty much stayed on the President, and you never saw [CHUCKLES] John Roberts' son Jack dancing over in the sidelines, making the, you know, the funny little gestures that he was doing. Now, if that would have been a handout photo, would we have seen Jack doing what he was doing in the side? I don't know.
BOB GARFIELD: You mentioned that in the case of the John Roberts nomination announcement the press was up in arms that it had been scheduled to exclude photojournalists. Why isn't the press in a constant state [LAUGHS] of being up in arms about the whole idea of photo handouts?
SUSAN WALSH: Amongst ourselves, we've complained -- we've been upset, we get frustrated. But there hasn't been necessarily an audience. And as WHMPA president, I've decided to take this on as one of our association's main missions, which is to bring attention to this and to try and improve access, and make it so that handout photos are not something we do routinely.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm curious about your own news organization, the Associated Press. You sounded the alarm. Has your outfit responded?
SUSAN WALSH: Yes. Actually, the AP has now established a policy where they are reviewing the handouts that they receive. A manager will either sign off on using that picture or passing a picture. And one of the criteria is, is if there's a photo and it was of an event that clearly could have accommodated press coverage, that they are likely to pass that photo.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, we didn't find you randomly. We read about you and this situation in Editor and Publisher magazine. I'm curious, what was the reaction to that piece?
SUSAN WALSH: My colleagues, fellow photojournalists in Washington, are very proud of the fact that we're bringing attention to this. On the other hand, people on the other side of the fence are not as happy. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: The other side of the fence? Do you mean newspaper management or at the White House itself?
SUSAN WALSH: At the White House.
BOB GARFIELD: How do you know they're unhappy?
SUSAN WALSH: A couple of phone calls and an e-mail.
BOB GARFIELD: And do they say we respectfully disagree or do they say how dare you or do they say we're going to tap your international phone calls? I mean, what level - [OVERTALK]
SUSAN WALSH: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - of unhappiness are we talking about?
SUSAN WALSH: [LAUGHS] Well, as I joked with my husband, I said, well, we should prepare to be audited. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Susan, thank you very much for joining us.
SUSAN WALSH: Thank you.
SUSAN WALSH: Photojournalist Susan Walsh is president of the White House News Photographers Association. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, Congress grills Google and others about Chinese censorship, and Chinese citizens denounce censorship too.