Reality Show President: Inside the White House PR Machine


The White House announced yesterday that
Jay Carney is stepping down as White House press secretary
Carney recently made an appearance in a Reason TV documentary,
“Reality Show President: Inside the White House PR Machine,”
which details how the administration’s unprecedented focus on
image is undercutting journalists as well as Obama’s promise of

Original release date was May 12, 2014 and original writeup is

“I am who the media says I am. I say what they say I
say. I become who they say I’ve become.”
Obama, The Audacity of Hope, 2006.

“Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and
the rule of law will be the touchstones of this
Barack Obama, 2009.

Which Barack Obama is telling the truth here? Writing as a U.S.
senator from Illinois, Obama laments that there will always be a
barrier—the independent media—between him and the people he serves.
As a public figure, his identity will be created by reporters and
critics that he cannot control, distorted by the lenses of
photographers who don’t answer directly to him. 

Only three years later, as commander in chief, President Obama
took a far more trusting tone with the media. In his earliest
speeches, he promised an administration of unparalleled openness,
access, and integrity. Indeed, he asserted he was running “the most
transparent administration in history” just four months before
Edward Snowden spilled the beans on the National Security

“The White House has effectively become a broadcast company,”
says Michael Shaw, publisher of, a site
dedicated to the analysis of news images. Shaw explains how
strategically composed photos, taken by official White House
photographers, travel from social media sites that are controlled
by the administration to the front pages of newspapers around the

The press publishes the official White House photographs because
independent photographers and videographers  are
increasingly barred
 from covering the president. This
practice has diminished the power of the independent media as an
exclusive distribution channel while empowering official
photographers such as Pete Souza, who are on the presidential

And so, says Shaw, the public has been fed a steady diet of
whatever kind of president the news cycle demands. When conspiracy
theorists questioned Obama’s patriotism, we saw images
of Obama
the American everyman
. To celebrate the anniversary of Rosa
Parks’ 1955 refusal to move to the back of a public bus in
Montgomery, Alabama, we saw Obama
reenact her famous image
. Time and again, we
see Obama striking poses out of John F. Kennedy’s
 The official White House photographers have
created a presidential identity for every conceivable occasion—as
long as the image is flattering, and almost always, larger than

While presidents have always sought to control their image, Shaw
and many in the press say that Obama has restricted media access to
an unparalleled degree. As the AP’s director of photography wrote
last year in The
New York Times
, the Obama administration 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.”

Media boycotts of official photographs have been ineffective in
persuading the president to live up to his promise of transparency.
It is only by a tradition of public openness, not law, that
photographers have enjoyed access to the official business of the
president. So we could revert to the practice before the JFK
administration, when photographers were mostly kept away from the
inner workings of the White House.

Short of generating public outrage, there is little the
independent media can do. “Because [the White House] can distribute
directly through all these different [new and old media] channels,”
says Shaw, “there’s really not much downside to it, there’s not
much accountability.”

All over the world, heads of state are producing idealized
versions of their own identities on social media, a technology that
empowers leaders every bit as much as the rest of us. Heads of
state and politicians are increasingly free to project their own
self-image directly to the public, with less accountability than
ever from an independent press. From the White House on
 to Ten Downing Street on
 to Bashar al-Assad’s Instagram
, we may never see our politicians in the way that we did
just a few years ago.

About 12 minutes. 

Produced, shot, and edited by Todd Krainin.

All still photography from the White House.

Music by Chris Zabriskie, Lee Rosevere, Kevin MacLeod, and
Setuniman at FreeSound.

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from Hit & Run

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