“Orwellian”: White House Image Control & Press Censorship

George Orwell’s 1984 is known for the constant surveillance that was inflicted on society. Every home had a “telescreen” that was a two-way communication device to the government. It could both send images like a TV, but also be used to monitor a specific person as well as give him orders.

So we have been hearing a lot about our “Orwellian” government with the revelations about the NSA and its domestic spying. But another feature of Orwell’s fictional (or prophetic) totalitarian society was the way that press reports that no longer served the regime’s interests were deleted from history. One of the protagonists sins was to have kept a forbidden photograph that was supposed to be destroyed so that the event it recorded could be denied.

It was this latter meaning which seems to have informed a New York Times editorial by Santiago Lyon, vice president and director of photography at The Associated Press: “Obama’s Orwellian Image Control.”

Manifestly undemocratic… is the way Mr. Obama’s administration — in hypocritical defiance of the principles of openness and transparency he campaigned on — 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.

The White House-based press corps was prohibited from photographing Mr. Obama on his first day at work in January 2009. Instead, a set of carefully vetted images was released. Since then the press has been allowed to photograph him alone in the Oval Office only twice: in 2009 and in 2010, both times when he was speaking on the phone. Pictures of him at work with his staff in the Oval Office — activities to which previous administrations routinely granted access — have never been allowed.

Instead, here’s how it’s done these days: An event involving the president discharging his official duties is arbitrarily labeled “private,” with media access prohibited. A little while later an official photo is released on the White House Flickr page, or via Twitter to millions of followers. Private? Hardly.

These so-called private events include meetings with world leaders and other visitors of major public interest — just the sorts of activities photojournalists should, and used to, have access to.

In response to these restrictions, 38 of the nation’s largest and most respected media organizations (including The New York Times) delivered a letter to the White House last month protesting photojournalists’ diminished access.

A deputy press secretary, Josh Earnest, responded by claiming that the White House had released more images of the president at work than any previous administration. It is serving the public perfectly well, he said, through a vibrant stream of behind-the-scenes photographs available on social media.

He missed the point entirely.

The official photographs the White House hands out are but visual news releases. Taken by government employees (mostly former photojournalists), they are well composed, compelling and even intimate glimpses of presidential life. They also show the president in the best possible light, as you’d expect from an administration highly conscious of the power of the image at a time of instant sharing of photos and videos.

By no stretch of the imagination are these images journalism. Rather, they propagate an idealized portrayal of events on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Lyon compares the White House’s practice with photographs with never holding press conferences and only putting out written statements that allow not questions or conversation. He points out that past administrations have also released official photographs. They did so without censoring the press.

Of course, when you think about it, this form of Orwellian censorship is similar to how the Obama Administration has treated the press. Obama is performing as a fully Orwellian president. The fact that he claims to value transparency just adds “doublethink” to the checklist.