NEW YORK — The White House said it is ending its long-running practice of having presidents re-enact televised speeches for news photographers after major addresses to the country, a little-known arrangement that fed suggestions of fakery when Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden.
After Obama’s live, late-evening address from the East Room of the White House on May 1, five photographers were ushered in to shoot pictures as the president stood at the podium and re-read a few lines of his speech — a practice that news organizations have protested for years.
Even though The Associated Press and other news outlets said in captions to the photos that they were taken after the president delivered his address, many people who saw them may have assumed they depicted the speech itself. That raised questions of whether news organizations were staging an event.
The issue also drew attention when Jason Reed of Reuters, one of the photographers who took part, blogged about the assignment, saying the president “re-enacted the walkout and first 30 seconds of the statement for us.”
This week, the White House stepped in.
“We have concluded that this arrangement is a bad idea,” Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said late Wednesday. He said the administration is open to working out some new arrangement with photographers.
The practice of re-enactments has a long history. Washington veterans say President Harry Truman would deliver speeches over radio and then repeat them for newsreel cameras. Doug Mills, a photographer for The New York Times who was on duty May 1, said he has seen every president from Ronald Reagan to Obama take time after a speech so still photographers could get their shots.
Photographers know that for these major televised addresses, delivered from the White House without an audience, newspapers and websites expect to illustrate their stories with a picture of the president speaking. News organizations disdain White House handout photos, preferring to take the pictures themselves. They consider “screen grabs” from television to be of poor quality.
Yet the presence of still photographers with cameras that make noise can be a distraction to a president, particularly in cramped settings such as the Oval Office, and perhaps to viewers of the speech.
“All it takes is for some photographer to drop something and the president react to it, and it looks terrible on television,” Mills said.
The AP, in the photo captions transmitted with pictures shot by Pablo Martinez Monsivais, said: “President Barack Obama reads his statement to photographers after making a televised statement” on bin Laden’s death. Despite that, a survey by the journalism think tank Poynter Institute found that 30 of 50 newspaper front pages that used an Obama photo from the speech “implied or strongly suggested it was an image of the live address.”
Santiago Lyon, director of photography for the AP, said the news service “would welcome real-time access to these sort of addresses in a way that maintains our journalistic independence.”
The White House usually has an official photographer on duty, and the administration’s Pete Souza took pictures of the president’s real speech that night. But news organizations generally resist using handouts unless necessary — as was the case with the official photos of the White House Situation Room during the mission that killed bin Laden.
Also, the role of the official White House photographer is to show presidents in a good light. For example, if a president were to shed a tear or get visibly angry during a speech, it might make a great news photo, but probably not one the White House staff would want to circulate.
Don Winslow, editor of News Photographer magazine for the National Press Photographers Association, said the White House offered a pool arrangement for national addresses, where one photographer would be chosen and would agree to distribute a photo to colleagues, but news organizations rejected it.
David Ake, assistant AP bureau chief for photography in Washington, said the White House has not approached the AP with the idea. But he said single-photographer pools allow only one point of view.
“There are examples every day of the variety of pictures made when several photographers are present for a news event,” Ake said. “Single-photographer pools stifle the creativity created by competition among several photographers to make the best storytelling image.”
There are conflicting accounts on whether technology exists to take photographs without distracting the president. One idea could be using mirrors so photographers could do their jobs out of the president’s sight line, the White House’s Earnest said.
“We’re optimistic that we can work out another arrangement with the still photographers,” he said.