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March 20, 2014

If You Can’t Join ‘Em, Outshoot ‘Em: Dharapak, AP Take On White House Over Dalai Lama

Dharapak Dalai Lama US Capitol

At the Newspaper Association of America’s mediaXchange conference in Denver on Tuesday, AP’s Charlie Dharapak again detailed how the White House is cutting out the press in releasing exclusive images via social media. (Along the way, Dharapak ventured the explanation that the White House is “hypersensitive” about Obama’s image.) The bone this time? Visual access to the meeting Obama held last month with the Dalai Lama.

Here’s the official White House photo:

Obama Dalai Lama

If it’s the first time you’ve seen it, it’s probably because many media organizations refused to distribute it, having been excluded from the photo availability typical of most White House sit-downs with top leaders and dignitaries. But, does the photo reflect a “hypersensitivity” on the part of the White House? To the extent the administration was inordinately concerned about ruffling feathers in China, one might say yes. (Far from punishing the White House, by the way, the prospect of the press not energetically circulating this private White House photo actually abetted the administration — honoring the Dalai Lama but otherwise keeping it on the lowdown.)

What the administration doesn’t seem to be considering, however, are the consequences of preventing the visual media from creating and distributing the same boring snap of the two men facing each other. Of those consequences, one is that the press, beyond the venting and the resentment, is going to raise its game. Talking Dharapak again, the photographer came to deliver a vivid shot (a rejoinder, perhaps?) on Capitol Hill a couple weeks later. Capturing a slightly goofy spiritual emissary juxtaposed with that sun-shiny circular suggestion-of-a-planet in Boehner’s office, Dharapak fills the editorial vacuum left by the White House with a picture that is not just as colorful as the man, but delivers the kind of creative expression that, in fact, does make people pay attention. (Also check out Stephen Crowley discussing his greater incentive and creativity arising from the censorship in this clip from our recent BagNews Salon on White House photo access.)

It’s not like the Dalai Lama just slipped into town than slinked out, by the way. Rather, he diligently worked the government and the media circuit to the hilt — and vice versa. Does the White House really feel that anything more than a stock single image with the Dalai Lama — this being their third such meeting, by the way — is actually going to substantively prevent tension with the Chinese? And, if that’s the case, how does the administration assess the rest of official Washington, from both sides of the aisle, hamming it up with the Dalai Lama in front of the cameras?

And is there any recognition that the fun might stem, at least in part, from some people in town being just a little too controlling and uptight?

…You might notice, by the way, that beyond the White House shot, we have Dharapak to thank for the rest.

(update: slightly revised for secondary quote accuracy)

(photo 1: @charlesdharapak/Instagram caption: Dalai Lama visits Capitol Hill. March 6, 2014.photo 2: Pete Souza/White House caption: President Barack Obama meets with the Dalai Lama in the Map Room of the White House, Feb. 21, 2014.. photo 3: Charles Dharapak/AP photo 4: Charles Dharapak/AP caption: Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama poses for a “selfie” with blogger and activist Alek Boyd during a break between panel discussions at an event entitled: “Happiness, Free Enterprise, and Human Flourishing” Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.)

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