Reality Show President: Inside the White House PR Machine

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"I am who the media says I am. I say what they say I say. I become who they say I've become."—Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope, 2006.

"Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."—Barack Obama, 2009.

Which Barack Obama is telling the truth here? Writing as a U.S. senator from Illinois, Obama laments that there will always be a barrier—the independent media—between him and the people he serves. As a public figure, his identity will be created by reporters and critics that he cannot control, distorted by the lenses of photographers who don't answer directly to him. 

Only three years later, as commander in chief, President Obama took a far more trusting tone with the media. In his earliest speeches, he promised an administration of unparalleled openness, access, and integrity. Indeed, he asserted he was running "the most transparent administration in history" just four months before Edward Snowden spilled the beans on the National Security Agency.

"The White House has effectively become a broadcast company," says Michael Shaw, publisher of Bagnewsnotes.com, a site dedicated to the analysis of news images. Shaw explains how strategically composed photos, taken by official White House photographers, travel from social media sites that are controlled by the administration to the front pages of newspapers around the world.

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The press publishes the official White House photographs because independent photographers and videographers  are increasingly barred from covering the president. This practice has diminished the power of the independent media as an exclusive distribution channel while empowering official photographers such as Pete Souza, who are on the presidential payroll.  

And so, says Shaw, the public has been fed a steady diet of whatever kind of president the news cycle demands. When conspiracy theorists questioned Obama's patriotism, we saw images of Obama the American everyman. To celebrate the anniversary of Rosa Parks' 1955 refusal to move to the back of a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, we saw Obama reenact her famous image. Time and again, we see Obama striking poses out of John F. Kennedy's repertoire. The official White House photographers have created a presidential identity for every conceivable occasion—as long as the image is flattering, and almost always, larger than life.

While presidents have always sought to control their image, Shaw and many in the press say that Obama has restricted media access to an unparalleled degree. As the AP's director of photography wrote last year in The New York Times, the Obama administration has "systematically tried to bypass the media by releasing a sanitized visual record of his activities through official photographs and videos, at the expense of independent journalistic access."

Media boycotts of official photographs have been ineffective in persuading the president to live up to his promise of transparency. It is only by a tradition of public openness, not law, that photographers have enjoyed access to the official business of the president. So we could revert to the practice before the JFK administration, when photographers were mostly kept away from the inner workings of the White House.

Short of generating public outrage, there is little the independent media can do. "Because [the White House] can distribute directly through all these different [new and old media] channels," says Shaw, "there's really not much downside to it, there's not much accountability."

All over the world, heads of state are producing idealized versions of their own identities on social media, a technology that empowers leaders every bit as much as the rest of us. Heads of state and politicians are increasingly free to project their own self-image directly to the public, with less accountability than ever from an independent press. From the White House on YouTube to Ten Downing Street on Flickr to Bashar al-Assad's Instagram page, we may never see our politicians in the way that we did just a few years ago.

About 12 minutes. 

Produced, shot, and edited by Todd Krainin.

All still photography from the White House.

Music by Chris Zabriskie, Lee Rosevere, Kevin MacLeod, and Setuniman at FreeSound.

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  1. I don’t think he even knows who he is. He doesn’t really seem to have much of a personality. He’s whatever his sycophantic admirers want him to be on any given day.

    1. He has no independent identity. He is whatever Valerie Jarrett says he is.

    2. That’s not quite fair. I have it on excellent authority that he’s for all the things the everyman is for and against those things they hate.

  2. I don’t really care what he “is”. I only care about what he is not.

    Genuine.

  3. Airforce One is a great boon for image conscious administrations and news outlets wanting near-exclusive access. Now the WH press corp is unhappy that they, too, are shoved aside like independent news outlets have increasingly been since, at least, the FDR administration.

    It was just a matter of time till the WH no longer needed the national press and could go it on their own. They no longer need their uneasy alliance with the press to get their messaged message out to the eagerly waiting populous. We haven’t lost much. The major news outlets, who used to have exclusive access via their seats in the WH press corp, are the major losers. The rest of us need only turn up our derp filters for all to be mostly the same.

  4. Don’t worry that same press whining will make prettier and prettier wordy images of their master the one until the worship factor regains them access with the lens.
    They will climb the highest mountain and swim the widest sea in order to make amends and claim the re-endowed kiddie prize, for their less than perfect former images.

  5. I’ve always thought this was the most asinine of them all.

  6. The leaders are still countered by social media as well, and the contrast will continue to clip their wings. They can’t hide everything. Even in the 1990s, between talk radio and the budding Internet, there was a LOT of people who knew about Bill Clinton’s serial rapist history and the string of suicides and violent deaths in his political wake.

    Drudge and company were harbingers of a new free press, and the leaders are late to the party. They’ll have to use things like legislation and executive orders to tamp the Internet back down but it’s let loose now. Even the Illum*nat* web site complained about their exposure on the Web.

  7. There are plenty of people here who can correct me if I’m wrong. I doubt that someone who closes one eye to use a camera shoots skeet. It’s also a little suspicious that he’s using the camera right-eyed and the shotgun left-eyed, though his left-handedness may explain that.

  8. This skinny little Marxist douchebag is one of the most successfully crafted piles of nothingness the world has ever witnessed.

  9. I didn’t realize how much tension existed between the White House Press Corp and the Administration due to blocked access. It is easy to miss because they’re otherwise so fawning and otherwise uncurious about a lot of important things.

    That said, I have taken notice of the hero images that the White House disseminates. So I compiled several of the official White House photos into a satirical photo blog a very humble Obama himself posts to.

    HumbleObama.com

    1. So winningly humble! So handsomely humble!
      So IMPORTANTLY humble!!!

  10. In Texas this syndrome is called “all hat and no cattle”

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