This week the White House announced that it will stop the decades-old practice of reenacting speeches for the benefit of photographers. This comes as a surprise, mainly because most of us didn't realize the photos we see of presidential addresses are about as authentic as The Hills.
After his televised address on the death of Osama bin Laden, President Obama walked out again and re-read his speech for the benefit of five photojournalists, as he always does after a major speech. The Associated Press reports:
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.
This only became an issue when one of the photographers, Jason Reed of Reuters, wrote on his blog that the President "re-enacted the walkout and first 30 seconds of the statement for us." The captions from each photo agency made some note that they weren't taken during the original speech. For example, Getty says, "U.S. President Barack Obama stands after addressing the nation on TV from the East Room of the White House to make a televised statement May 1, 2011 in Washington, DC." However, the Poynter Institute found that 30 of 50 newspaper front pages that used the photos, "implied or strongly suggested it was an image of the live address."
Many of us may have assumed that the images were taken from the video feed, but photo agencies actually consider screen grabs to be of poor quality. (The AP has this image from its video feed, and it's noticeably darker and fuzzier.)
A White House spokesman said this week, "We have concluded that this arrangement is a bad idea," and offered to work out something else with photographers. However, they've yet to figure out what that should be. Doug Mills admits that allowing live photography could be distracting. "All it takes is for some photographer to drop something and the president react to it, and it looks terrible on television," he said. Other options including sharing images from one photographer or taking handouts from the White House photographer, but news organizations say that's unacceptable. They want multiple points of view, and know the guy who's on the White House payroll won't pass out shots of the president looking nervous or letting a single tear glisten in the corner of his eye.
It seems there may not be a way to allow photography during speeches without distracting the president. The White House spokesman suggested that photographers may be able to use mirrors to take high-quality shots while remaining out of the president's sight line. Maybe we've been jaded by too many Facebook profile pictures, but we're skeptical.