Why the AP’s Policy on Government Photos Doesn’t Make Sense
President Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama at the White House yesterday. This is a significant event in global politics, because meeting with the president is seen as official recognition of a leader’s stature and authority. And China does not want anyone to recognize the Dalai Lama as a leader with authority, because that, in turn, is a recognition of the independence and sovereignty of Tibet (in fact, the Chinese tried to pressure Obama to cancel the meeting).
But despite the international significance of this event, if you’re American and unless you particularly follow these things, chances are you didn’t hear much about it. And you almost certainly didn’t see any pictures of Obama meeting with the Dalai Lama. Why not?
Because the White House, in an effort to conduct the meeting in a manner that wouldn’t offend the Chinese (an effort that was doomed to fail before it even began), barred media photographers from photographing the event, and instead only released one photo taken by the official White House photographer (of course, the Chinese were offended anyway).
And the Associated Press, the American news agency that provides news content to nearly all news outlets in the U.S., refused to run the provided image. Why? The AP’s director of photography Santiago Lyon explained on a Facebook page that the AP “won’t accept or use handout photos if we feel access would have been possible by the media.” He continued, “This position is particularly important to us when covering government activities in democratic nations.”
And in the very next breath, Lyon wrote:
“True, we often accept handout photos from governments or states where media freedoms are not as developed as they are in most democracies. Ignoring those handout photos would deprive our readers and viewers of a unique source of information.”
Come again?? So the AP is willing to run government handouts from authoritarian and totalitarian governments and dictatorships which suppress the freedom of information, but is unwilling to run handouts that come from freely, democratically-elected governments which support the freedom of the press? Does this policy sound backwards to you? Well, the AP is saying essentially that information should be provided by independent media, not the government (sure, this is the whole point of freedom of the press), but that when there is no independent press, they’ll run with whatever information they can get, no matter how dubious the source. Basically, they seem to be saying that any information is better than no information.
This perspective itself is questionable, but the AP’s policy becomes flatly self-contradictory when they take the next step: in order to protest the fact that the free media that does exist in this country wasn’t given access to the President’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, the AP wasn’t going to run anything. So their choice was to deny readers any information about this significant global event because they didn’t like the source of the available information. This is an obvious contradiction to their previous position that any information is better than no information.
There are several other, additional reasons the AP’s policy here is wrong:
- Running the propaganda of governments that deny freedom of the press accomplishes the exact opposite of the goal: It is precisely those governments that suppress and deny the freedom of the press of which the public must be most suspicious; these are the governments that most slant, distort, manipulate and outright fabricate information for their own ends. Further, by providing an outlet for the propaganda of these governments, the AP is rewarding them for suppressing independent media, and encouraging these governments to continue doing so.
- Refusing to run official handouts from democratically-elected governments, in the rare occurrences when the free press that does exist is not given access to an event denies the world the opportunity to learn about that event, as was perfectly illustrated in this case. Further, democratically-elected governments have the least motivation of any government to distort or manipulate information (no one, even Mr. Lyon of the AP, suggests that the photograph provided by the White House was in any way inaccurate).
Through its policy on this matter, the AP is essentially saying that the information that comes from governments like North Korea, China and Iran is more valuable, trustworthy and pressworthy than the information that comes from the U.S. government. This thinking is clearly backwards, and the policy is foolish and made more out of convenience than of journalistic integrity.
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