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.

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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