On Thursday, the White House Correspondents' Association and 37 news organizations submitted a letter to the press secretary, Jay Carney, protesting what photographers said amounted to the establishment of the White House's own Soviet-style news service, which gets privileged access to Obama at the expense of journalists who cover the president.
"As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist's camera lens," the three-page letter said, "officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the executive branch of government."
The Obama administration has embraced social media as a way to get its message to the public beyond the traditional news media. Senior officials post tweets and blog items, while the chief White House photographer, Pete Souza, posts photos of the president on Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram, often minutes after they are taken.
The White House defended its policy, arguing that it was not logistically feasible to give photographers access to every event. The deputy spokesman, Josh Earnest, said, "We've taken advantage of new technology to give the American public even greater access to behind-the-scenes footage or photographs of the president doing his job."
"I understand why that is a source of some consternation to the people in this room," Earnest said during the daily White House briefing. "But to the American public, that is a clear win."
Earnest faced persistent questioning from reporters who said the White House was setting a precedent on access and was substituting a government photographer for those from news agencies. Souza, a former photographer for The Chicago Tribune who became close to Obama when he was a senator from Illinois, referred questions to Earnest.
The letter cited seven recent examples of newsworthy events from which photographers were banned, including an outdoor lunch between Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a meeting with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, and a session in the Oval Office in which Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani human rights campaigner, spoke with
Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their daughter Malia.
Administration officials have said these were private meetings. But in all of the cases, a White House photographer recorded the event and posted the pictures on Flickr or other social media sites. Major news organizations regularly publish the photos.
"They're excluding photographers from events at the White House, which is a problem in and of itself," said Steve Thomma, the president of the White House Correspondents' Association.
"But now they're sending in their photographers and video crews and then releasing the photos and video. That sets up their own media operation."
Tensions between the photographers and the White House have simmered for months. They flared during Obama's visit to South Africa last summer, when photographers were allowed to take a single shot of the president in Nelson Mandela's jail cell on Robben Island but were excluded from the cell when he hugged his daughter Sasha. That moment was caught by Souza and widely distributed.
White House photographers have historically captured private moments of the president, with his family or conferring with advisers in the Oval Office or the Situation Room. During the debate over the civil war in Syria, Souza's images of internal meetings provided a revealing account of the tensions felt by the president and his staff.
But the news organizations argue that the White House has expanded its restrictions to everyday activities, like the time when Obama went for a swim off Panama City, Fla., in 2010 to demonstrate that the water had been cleaned up after the BP oil spill.
"The way they exclude us is to say that this is a very private moment," said Doug Mills, a photographer for The New York Times who has covered the White House since the Reagan administration. "But they're making private moments very public."
In a tense meeting late last month with Carney, Mills and other board members of the White House Correspondents' Association showed a stack of photos that they said illustrated the problem.
"I said, 'Jay, this is just like TASS,'" Mills said, referring to the Soviet state news agency. "It's like government-controlled use of the public image of the president."
© 2013, The New York Times News Service