[UPDATE: Welcome, Weekly Standard readers.]
The Associated Press, which in 2012 co-sponsored “A Joint Exhibition by the Associated Press and the Korean Central News Agency Marking 100 Years Since the Birth of Kim Il Sung,” is furious at the White House for using official photographers (rather than independent photojournalists) to “propagate an idealized portrayal of events on Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Writing in the pages of The New York Times, Santiago Lyon, Vice President and Director of Photography at The Associated Press, assails the White House for excluding photojournalists from newsworthy events, and instead issuing “private” photographs of President Obama, which the author implies were stage-managed to portray the President in a positive light.
Manifestly undemocratic, in contrast, 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. [Santiago Lyon, New York Times op-ed]
The op-ed closes with even stronger language:
Until the White House revisits its draconian restrictions on photojournalists’ access to the president, information-savvy citizens, too, would be wise to treat those handout photos for what they are: propaganda.
It’s worth recalling how Paul Colford, the AP’s Director of Media Relations, fulminated when The Asian Wall Street Journal put the headline “Associated Propaganda” over this op-ed I wrote last year, criticizing the AP for conduct similar to (or worse than) what Lyon protests now. The strict standards of independence Lyon implies make for a striking contrast with the AP’s treatment of North Korea’s dictators since 2011, when it signed two undisclosed agreements with a North Korean state “news” service to set up a bureau in Pyongyang, and to bring this exhibition to New York:
See the rest of the AP-KCNA exhibition here, here and here, on the Rodong Sinmun Web site, if you haven’t already. Or read the criticisms of journalists who report for Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Australian, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Weekly Standard, who either questioned the accuracy of its reporting or revealed varying levels of discomfort about AP’s cozy relationship with North Korea.
Lyon’s op-ed unwittingly damns the AP’s North Korea coverage in other ways. For example, a purge has just begun in North Korea. The execution of ex-Number Two Jang Song Thaek could mean that Kim Jong Un and the whole dynasty he represents have begun circling the drain. That, in turn, would make this one of the most important stories to come out of North Korea since the end of the Korean War. The AP has filed stories about the purge from Pyongyang, but for some undisclosed reason, it did not cover any North Korean press conferences, interview any North Korean officials, or do any investigative journalism to enlighten us about whether Jang really did attempt a coup against Kim Jong Un, or whether this means that the rogue nuclear state is descending into instability.
Instead, the AP has relied on internet and external sources that are just as available to Reuters or any other news service. The only unique facts that the AP added from Pyongyang were its observation that a crowd had gathered to read a billboard where denunciations of Jang were posted, and the vox populi reaction of one North Korea citizen. (The AP, true to form, did not disclose how the interviewee was selected or whether state minders were present during her “interview.”) AP then reported that the allegations against Jang “couldn’t be independently confirmed.” But why is that? Why are the AP’s only North Korean sources for the substance of its report official missives that are published online, where they’re just as available to you and me? Why is the AP left to join the rest of us in frenzied blind speculation about what all of this really means?
So it has always been with newsworthy events in North Korea — AP added no exclusive and newsworthy information about North Korea’s recent nuclear or missile tests, previous purges in Pyongyang, or a report that North Korea executed nine people,* most of them children, who had recently been repatriated from Laos. Its greatest indignity (and the most relevant to this argument) was to be excluded from taking photographs during Dennis Rodman’s visits. I don’t remember the AP protesting any of these things, although I do remember when an AP Vice President made the risible assertion that its correspondents in Pyongyang would not be censored, and when its Bureau Chief said that the North Korean “journalists” assigned to work in her bureau had never refused to cover a story, and this:
We’ve communicated our standards of journalism and won’t compromise. We will adhere to AP standards. The North Korean government doesn’t screen anything we write. They give feedback and complain sometimes. For instance, a North Korean journalist at KCNA asked why we used the word “communist” in reference to North Korea in our stories as the word is no longer in their constitution. He gave me a copy of the constitution that called the country “socialist.”
Presumably, Lee meant that AP had “communicated its standards” to the government of North Korea. But her defense only raises questions about all of the newsworthy things going on in Pyongyang that the AP hasn’t covered.
It seems hypocritical of the AP to protest the same conduct in one circumstance that it meekly submits to, or actively sponsors, in another. Given the character of North Korea’s regime, the limited value and independence of AP’s coverage isn’t surprising. Its ethical lapses in Pyongyang are no defense of the President’s treatment of those who have been important sources of his own iconography. I will even allow that the AP’s Times op-ed makes important points about openness in a democratic society. Lyon’s op-ed, however, also sets a fastidious standard of independence that the AP has failed to meet — and miserably — in North Korea. By doing so, Lyon unwittingly condemns his own colleagues and bosses as propagandists.
* Update, January 2015: The children are alive.