McGuire on Media

The access flap: Public perception and the fight for relevancy

The White House decision to restrict access to events such as the second swearing-in while distributing White House photos to the wire serves is one of those press issues most press people will care deeply about.  Regular citizens, like the person who shares my name and sleeps with me, not so much.

My former journalist wife thinks the wire services who refused to distribute the White House approved photos of the of the second swearing-in, and “first day in the Oval office photos” are acting childish. I think Michael Oreskes, the AP’s managing editor for U.S. news, is a prince for his stand. I think he is absolutely correct when he says “we are not distributing what are, in effect, visual press releases.”

Oreskes may have complicated the debate a little bit when he told Politico the AP believes “access for news photographers has been a time-honored tradition at the White House through many administrations and needs to be continued.”

I find it more than a bit uncomfortable when the best argument we can muster is tradition. That’s not an argument my smart wife and millions of citizens are going to buy. 

Let’s face it, the access issue is an economic power issue and AP, Reuters and AFP are fighting for relevance. As the economic strength of news organizations erode, the battle for press relevance, standing and position is going to become a daily struggle. 

Journalists have always been a tad embarrassed by the admonition from power brokers that “you don’t fight with people who buy ink by the barrel” a quote sometimes attributed to H.L. Mencken.  The truth is that hoary threat served many journalists well. That economic power along with dominant readership gave journalists formidableness and relevance.  As revenues, profits and readership contract, that ability to keep the press an aggressive independent monitor of power press is is going to come under increasing attack.

That’s why tradition bothers me as an argument for direct access to the White House. Invoking tradition in a time of tumultuous change in the economic, political and journalistic landscape seems weak and closer to a tantrum than logic.  It is dramatic understatement to say that in an era of audience control mainstream media is not the biggest player and holding our breath until we turn blue is the wrong way to convince the public that mainstream media is a valid representative for the public’s interest.

I am much more comfortable with the contention made in the AP story filed on Thursday that included this:

“The news agencies have used White House-provided images in the past for areas in the White House where media access is generally not permitted, such as the Situation Room or the private residence. But they contend that the Oval Office is the public office of the president and photographers should have access rather than rely on a government handout.

That public/private distinction is easily understood and it makes access something that matters to the public as well as to the press. Most citizens can appreciate that it is a bad idea for government to cover itself and the press as a responsible emissary provides maximum accountability for the public for “public’ events. 

We are naive if we believe the economic ramifications of this news media economic hurricane are not going to affect journalism.  As media stumbles and shrinks in the economic arena more institutions are going to challenge the primacy of its journalists.  Increasingly government and business are going to try alternative ways of communicating with the public.

Mainstream media cannot respond out of pique or rely on tradition. Instead, by our ethics, our responsibility and our even-handedness we have to argue that responsible mainstream media organizations are the best representatives of the public in a transparent society.

One Comment