Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and a tale of media displeasure

The row erupted when Woods joined Obama for a round on Sunday, lifting the lid on a simmering dispute between journalists and a White House machine pumping out news, opinion, photos and video, bypassing traditional media.

Updated: February 20, 2013 10:18 IST
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Washington: The image-savvy White House denied squelching media access Tuesday, after Tiger Woods unwittingly teed off a new storm between President Barack Obama's spin team and reporters who cover him.

The row erupted when Woods joined Obama for a round on Sunday, lifting the lid on a simmering dispute between journalists and a White House machine pumping out news, opinion, photos and video, bypassing traditional media.

Sunday's match-up of the most powerful man in the world, and the man still regarded by many as the planet's greatest golfer, was by any account a big story -- but White House officials declared it off limits to the press.

Grumbling White House reporters were sent into apoplexy when a Golf Digest writer tweeted details of the round from the swish Floridian resort and popped up on the Golf Channel to sell his scoop.

Reporters and photographers in the small pool that trails Obama everywhere -- be it to Kabul or on a date night with his wife -- fumed about missing what was likely to be a front page story.

Twitter rained derision on journalists seen as pampered prima donnas on a glamor beat, but reporters protested they were guarding the cherished privilege and public service of their access to the president.

"There is a very simple but important principle we will continue to fight for today and in the days ahead: transparency," said White House Correspondents' Association president Ed Henry, who works for Fox News.

Jay Carney, spokesman for a White House that brands itself the most transparent in history, denied that Obama's team had broken with precedent that granted access to other golf games by this president and others.

He scoffed that the media wanted a picture of the president simply playing with a "golf pro," mockingly understating the news value of Obama's encounter with a 14-times major champion tainted by a sex scandal.

"I doubt that there's ever been a White House Press corps that's ever been wholly satisfied with the level of access that they've been afforded," said Carney, a poacher-turned-gamekeeper as a former Time White House correspondent.

Carney listed Obama's 35 news conferences since taking office in 2009 and 591 interviews as evidence of his boss's openness to the media.

But reporters from traditional media question the nature of that interaction -- as many interviews are with local television networks which often lob softball questions.

Obama and top aides also avoid rigorous cross-examination on forums like "Google Plus hangouts" or "Facebook townhall events" exploiting the reach of social media.

Reporters for traditional outlets, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, complain that their long-cherished capacity to get interviews with the president has been compromised.

And in off-the-cuff remarks, the president has sometimes let slip his disdain for some news coverage, which he sees as obsessed with trivia.

Tensions always come to the boil between administrations and the press.

But the clash has been exacerbated under Obama by his team's mastery of social and online media. In a Politico article Tuesday, the president was dubbed a "puppet master" manipulating coverage of his White House.

The unwanted competition comes as traditional media fight for survival and the internet devours traditional revenue sources.

Former Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt tweaked the media by saying many Americans do not watch traditional news or read papers.

"The White House has found more ways to engage Americans in the conversation directly, so should the media," he said on Twitter.

Most infuriating to journalists is the daily stream of behind-the-scenes pictures by official White House cameraman Pete Souza on Twitter and Flickr.

The pictures often encroach into territory -- bill signings for instance -- that the White House press corps say should be open to all, and free from propagandizing influence of Obama's spin team.

Top news agencies, including Agence France-Presse, mostly refuse to distribute such pictures on editorial grounds, though they are frequently blasted across social media platforms.

White House aides argue, sometimes rightly, that the feed is an exercise in transparency -- revealing scenes never before open to the media -- as in the famous picture of the president's national security team during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

But often the Flickr stream seems more an attempt to not just to manipulate the news but to influence history, and how Obama is seen decades hence.

The photos often lionize Obama, making him seem pensive, compassionate and even taking his rightful place in historic company.

In one Souza shot in 2012 for instance, Obama is seen in a moment of reflection in the Oval Office, framed by a bust and portrait of Abraham Lincoln, a picture of George Washington and a statue of Martin Luther King.

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