Is the White House Going “Orwellian” with the American Press?

President Obama private meetings with journalists, managing presidential messages, George Orwellian image manipulation

Image from Live Recording

It was a private meeting. Only certain writers were invited to meet with President Obama a few hours before he gave a live speech to the nation on September 10 about the global threat from ISIS. According to the Huffington Post there were 15 “columnists and magazine writers” in attendance at this exclusive, invite-only gathering.

A private meeting of journalists and the President.

Why would the President meet with a chosen few reporters before a nationally televised speech? Peter Baker of the New York Times was not listed as a guest, though was obviously in attendance as the next day he wrote that “just hours” before the speech, President Obama “privately reflected” on President Bush’s decision to go to war for a “…group of columnists and magazine writers for a discussion on Wednesday afternoon.” According to the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone, the White House declined to comment about the meeting. I was determined to find out why this private meeting occurred, and it only took some basic online sleuthing to find my answer; in the days after the President’s speech, 12 of the 15 invited writers posted articles that offered insight. The meeting, in my opinion, was to offer talking points or narratives to the writers for use in any articles they were to write about the speech.

The majority of the articles published after the exclusive gathering have common themes. Surprise! I believe there were two narratives offered to the press. ​I named these narratives “Reluctant Leader” and “Then and Now.” The “Reluctant Leader” narrative is an easy one to spot. Six of the invited writers used the word “reluctant” (or ambivalent as in the case of the New York Times’ Tom Friedman) in their pieces to refer to the President’s decision to attack ISIS.

David Brooks of the New York Times supported his “Reluctant” narrative with the weight of the bible.  His piece titled “The Reluctant Leader” is clearly about Obama’s burden. He compared the President with Moses, as both were having the job of leadership “thrust upon him.” He doesn’t want to, but he has to. Brooks only mentions ISIS once.

Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post reflected on how Obama’s decision to attack ISIS was made “reluctantly, even painfully” while his colleague David Ignatius saw “Obama’s advantages as a reluctant warrior.” Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic described the President as “our reluctant (or clear-eyed—take your pick) …” and the New Yorker‘s George Packer gave him “credit” for facing “the catastrophe,” however “reluctantly.”

Interestingly, the content of all of these articles was the President, not ISIS.

It seems the other narrative available for the taking was the “Then and Now” narrative. Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post posed this thought to her readers: “Ask why now is different from then.” Jerry Seib of the Wall Street Journal spoke of the President at a crossroads: “The end to one period of risk taking by the President and the beginning of another one.” Michael Tomasky of the Daily Beast described a clear difference in circumstances: “But that was the pre-ISIS state of play. Then we all saw the beheading videos, and fighting the Islamic State became a matter of urgency.”

Peter Beinart of the Atlantic made a clear case why President Obama’s ISIS decision is definitely not like Bush’s Iraq decision. “Unlike President Bush in the run-up to the Iraq War, he has not hyped the threat.” The benefits of picking the “Then and Now” narrative is that you have the “Not Bush” option, which was cleverly used by Frank Bruni. Bruni stated a common refrain we often hear: “At least he’s not Bush.”

What was then is not now and Obama is not Bush. Got it.

Two of the invited writers clearly quit the program and came up with their own narratives. New York Times writer Carol Giacomo took the burden off the President and thrust it on to the UN Security Council (although this could be a variation on the “Not Bush” narrative).

Dean of Columbia’s School of Journalism Steve Coll was an outlier who jettisoned the talking points completely and gave a radio interview that was original. Let’s see if he’s invited back to any more meetings with the President.

Interestingly, two writers from the private pre-speech meeting haven’t written anything about the speech.

I was sadly not invited to the private meeting, but I can add something that none of the guests chose to report: ​the use of photographic manipulation. In the live recording of the President’s speech, note the visual details:

President Obama private meetings with journalists, managing presidential messages, George Orwellian image manipulation

Image from Live Recording

Behind the President there is a window frame with blue curtains pulled back to reveal the lights of the city. There are picture frames high upon the back wall. The wall is plain yellow. Two flags flank the President.

Still images from the live recording were used in articles on the web, but they were altered. Comparing the still image and live recording you’ll see the differences.

Manipulated Still ImageIn the still images, you won’t see any frames in the window because the blue curtains are drawn blocking out the city lights (which created glints over the President’s shoulders). Gold window drapes are brought down behind the President. The wall now has a printed pattern and the picture frames are lowered on the wall, and one can see an image of a man in the frame on the right. The overall perspective of the image is different from the live recording as you can see when you look at the flags that flank the President which are recessed into the frame.

It’s a manipulated image. This may seem minor in the age of Photoshop, but citizens deserve a free press with images unaltered. The press works for the people, not the politicians. Altered images can create different reactions and feelings in the viewer. We make assumptions about the person based on pictures and a casual snapshot captures a person as they are. However when we see a photograph that has been doctored we are being told what to think. The viewer’s power of analysis is being shaped and curtailed to fit a narrative decided by someone else. This is known by people who are affected by the manipulated images of female models and celebrities. The use of altered images is a hot topic today and our government should not be protected from criticism.

In 1949 George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 was published. In the book, the Ministry of Truth is a part of the government where the protagonist Winston Smith is employed. His job is to re-write history and manipulate photographs. “This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound-tracks, cartoons, photographs — to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance.”

When reporters start snuggling up to politicians with private invitation only meetings I get nervous. In fact, press access to White House events has been curtailed so much that a letter signed by almost 40 news organizations was delivered to the White House protesting the use of official White House photographers to the exclusion of the press.

When photographs are manipulated to form a more pleasing image for a viewer, or when certain photographers on White House payrolls are used exclusively at White House events, we are chipping away at our free press. It prevents our ability to know the truth about our government. And only when we get the truth can we be truly informed citizens.

I don’t believe that Georges Orwell’s Ministry of Truth is a distant fantasy. I believe it exists in the shadows. Always lurking, waiting for a pathway left open by an unwitting citizenry.

Jennifer Lee is a filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles. She has spent many years working on Hollywood films and used her free time (when she had it!) making her own films. Her latest film, “Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation” is being distributed nationally and more public screenings are upcoming! Jennifer was recently named Global Ambassador for the Global Media Monitoring Project.

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