Obama Administration punishes reporter for using multimedia
The hip, transparent and social media-loving Obama administration is showing its analog roots. And maybe even some hypocrisy highlights.
White House officials have banished one of the best political reporters in the country from the approved pool of journalists covering presidential visits to the Bay Area for using now-standard multimedia tools to gather the news.
The Chronicle's Carla Marinucci - who, like many contemporary reporters, has a phone with video capabilities on her at all times - pulled out a small video camera last week and shot some protesters interrupting an Obama fundraiser at the St. Regis Hotel.
She was part of a "print pool" - a limited number of journalists at an event who represent their bigger hoard colleagues - which White House press officials still refer to quaintly as "pen and pad" reporting.
But that's a pretty Flintstones concept of journalism for an administration that presents itself as the Jetsons. Video is every bit a part of any journalist's tool kit these days as a functioning pen that doesn't leak through your pocket.
In fact, Carla and her reporting colleague, Joe Garofoli, founded something called "Shaky Hand Productions" - the semi-pro, sometimes vertiginous use of a Flip or phone camera by Hearst reporters to catch more impromptu or urgent moments during last year's California gubernatorial race that might otherwise be missed by TV.
The name has become its own brand; often politicians even ask if anyone from Shaky Hand will show at their event. For Carla, Joe and reporters at other Hearst newsrooms where Shaky Hand has taken hold, this was an appropriate dive into use of other media by traditional journalists catering to audiences who expect their news delivered in all modes and manners.
That's the world we live in and the President of the United States claims to be one of its biggest advocates.
Just the day before Carla's Stone Age infraction, Mr. Obama was at Facebook seated next to its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and may as well have been wearing an "I'm With Mark" t-shirt for all the mutual admiration going back and forth.
"The main reason we wanted to do this is," Obama said of his appearance, "first of all, because more and more people, especially young people, are getting their information through different media. And historically, part of what makes for a healthy democracy, what is good politics, is when you've got citizens who are informed, who are engaged."
Informed, in other words, through social and other digital media where videos of news are posted.
The President and his staffers deftly used social media like Twitter and Facebook in his election campaign and continue to extol the virtues and value. Except, apparently, when it comes to the press.
So what's up with the White House? We can't say because neither Press Secretary Jay Carney nor anyone from his staff would speak on the record.
Other sources confirmed that Carla was vanquished, including Chronicle editor Ward Bushee, who said he was "informed that Carla was removed as a pool reporter." Which shouldn't be a secret in any case because it's a fact that affects the newsgathering of our largest regional paper (and sfgate)and how local citizens get their information.
What's worse: more than a few journalists familiar with this story are aware of some implied threats from the White House of additional and wider punishment if Carla's spanking became public. Really? That's a heavy hand usually reserved for places other than the land of the free.
But bravery is a challenge, in particular for White House correspondents, most of whom are seasoned and capable journalists. They live a little bit in a gilded cage where they have access to the most powerful man in the world but must obey the rules whether they make sense or not.
CBS News reporter, Mark Knoller, has publicly protested the limited press access to Obama fundraisers, calling the policy "inconsistent." "It's no way to do business," wrote Politico's Julie Mason, "especially [for] a candidate who prides himself on transparency."
A 2009 blog by the White House Director of New Media states that "President Obama is committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history."
Not last week.
Mason referred to the San Francisco St. Regis protest as "a highly newsworthy event" where "reporters had to rely on written pool reports..."
Except, thanks to Carla's quick action with her camera, they didn't.
I get that all powerful people and institutions want to control their image and their message. That's part of their job, to create a mythology that allows them to continue being powerful.
But part of the press' job is to do the opposite, to strip away the cloaks and veneers. By banning her, and by not acknowledging how contemporary media works, the White House did not just put Carla in a cage but more like one of those stifling pens reserved for calves on their way to being veal.
Carla cannot do her job to the best of her ability if she can't use all the tools available to her as a journalist. The public still sees the videos posted by protesters and other St. Regis attendees, because the technology is ubiquitous. But the Obama Administration apparently wants to give the distinct advantage to citizen witnesses at the expense of professionals.
Why? Well, they won't tell us.
Some White House reporters are grumbling almost as much as the Administration about Carla's "breaking the rules." I can understand how they'd be irritated. If you didn't get the video because you understood you weren't supposed to, why should someone else get it who isn't following the longstanding civilized table manners?
The White House Press Correspondents' Association pool reporting guidelines warn about "no hoarding" of information and also say, "pool reports must be filed before any online story or blog." While uploading her video probably was the best way to file her report, Carla may have technically busted the letter of that law.
But the guidelines also say, "Print poolers can snap pictures or take video. They are not obliged to share these pictures...but can make them available if they so choose."
Then what guidelines is the White House applying here? Again, we don't know.
What the Administration should have done is to use this incident to precipitate a reasonable conversation about changing their 1950's policies into rules more suited to 2011. Dwight Eisenhower was the last President who let some new media air into the room when he lifted the ban on cameras at press conferences in 1952.
"We've come full circle here," Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Foundation's Project for Excellence in Journalism told me today. "A newspaper reporter is being punished because she took pictures with a moving camera. We live in a world where there are no longer distinctions. The White House is trying to live by 20th century distinctions."
The President's practice not just with transparency but in other dealings with the press has not been tracking his words, despite the cool glamour and easy conversation that makes him seem so much more open than the last guy.
It was his administration that decided to go after New York Times reporter James Risen to get at his source in a book he wrote about the CIA. For us here in SF who went through the BALCO case and other fisticuffs with the George W. Bush Attorney General's prosecutors, this is deja vu.
Late today, there were hints that the White House might be backing off the Carla Fatwa.
Barack Obama sold himself successfully as a fresh wind for the 21st century. In important matters of communication, technology, openness and the press, it's not too late for him to demonstrate that.