Networks Rush to Defend Obama Selfie: Refusing Photo Would Have Caused 'Diplomatic Incident'

All three networks on Wednesday engaged in damage control for the White House following criticism of President Obama's selfie during Tuesday's Mandela memorial service. On CBS This Morning, senior White House correspondent Bill Plante even made this absurd assertion: "The President might have caused a diplomatic incident if he had declined the invitation to be in a photo with two long-time allies." [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]

The cast of NBC's Today also justified the incident, with co-host Savannah Guthrie arguing: "I think some people thought it's not appropriate because it's a funeral. On the other hand, it wasn't a funeral, it was a memorial service." Weatherman Al Roker added: "It was a memorial, it was a celebration." Matt Lauer chimed in: "There were people singing and dancing all around them."

In a preceding report on Today, correspondent Lester Holt argued that the picture would have been "a get-together moment Mandela himself may have relished."

Lauer brought up another aspect of selfie-gate: "...it does not look like Mrs. Obama is amused....if you go back to the original selfie, she does not look incredibly  amused and people are saying that perhaps she was angry about the behavior."

After having just described the event as a "celebration" to excuse the President's cavalier picture taking, news reader Natalie Morales suddenly labeled it a "somber occasion" to explain the First Lady's sullen expression.

Lauer interjected: "She could have been thinking about a thousand other things and you have no idea, no way to read into that." Morales continued: "I think people are blowing that out of proportion." Roker bitterly observed: "They're gonna take it and go with the negative, of course."

At the top of the morning show's 9 a.m. ET hour, Morales went even further – perhaps too far – in defending Michelle Obama: "I mean, how many of us have photos taken of us, you just have that bitchy resting face, as we say." Roker rebuked her: "Okay, I didn't know we needed to use that word."

On ABC's Good Morning America, co-host George Stephanopoulos touted other just-released presidential photos from the South Africa trip as a way to "maybe to drown out the chatter over that selfie."

Like Morales, White House correspondent Jonathan Karl focused on defending the First Lady: "The photographer who took this picture of the selfie says that just a few seconds later, Michelle [Obama] was actually laughing and enjoying herself, with them as well. She wasn't actually upset as she looks in that photograph."


Here is a full transcript of Plante's report on the December 11 CBS This Morning:

7:36AM ET

CHARLIE ROSE: The service for Nelson Mandela Tuesday was filled with memorable moments, but this morning one scene is causing an uproar on social media. President Obama posed for a selfie with two European leaders. Critics are calling it tasteless. Senior White House correspondent Bill Plante is here. Bill, good morning.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Selfie Uproar; Obama Photo at Mandela Memorial Causes Online Stir]

BILL PLANTE: Good morning, Charlie. Well, as you probably know by now, a selfie is a self-portrait usually taken with a smartphone and meant to be shared with the world online. At the Mandela memorial service, another photographer actually captured the moment that the three world leaders posed for their selfie. And it was his photo that went viral and sparked all the outrage. It may seem like an odd setting for a selfie. A memorial service for the man who brought down Apartheid.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In honor of our father, Nelson Mandela.

PLANTE: But there they were, President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron mugging for the camera with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt . The moment struck some as rude. A Washington Post blogger called it "beyond the pale." Business Insider described it as "awkward."

Randy Cohen, who used to write the ethicist column for the New York Times Magazine, thinks this is less faux pas and more faux outrage.

RANDY COHEN: I think what people object to, when they do object, is the expression of endless narcissism undimmed by even the most solemn moments of human existence. But that's not what this was. This was a big public event that included celebration as well as grief. Laughter as well as tears.

PLANTE: Viewed another way, the President might have caused a diplomatic incident if he had declined the invitation to be in a photo with two long-time allies. Even so, the First Lady didn't seem too pleased.

To be fair, President Obama was not alone. Here's George W. Bush with U2 front man Bono. That snap was posted on the former president's Instagram. On that photo sharing site, where selfies are ubiquitous, there were thousands of pictures with the #mandelaservice.

COHEN: If it was terrible to take photographs at a memorial service, maybe they should have kicked out all those camera crews.

PLANTE: So has taking selfies at funerals become a trend? Well, maybe not, but there is a Tumblr blog dedicated to pictures of grieving mourners. Really? Probably safer to picture yourself at less somber historic occasions, like the president's daughters Sasha and Malia seen snapping selfies at their father's most recent inauguration.

Now, we need to note that the selfie for which the President posed yesterday has not surfaced. And given the uproar that the incident generated, the likelihood of that photo showing up on the internet anytime soon seems pretty slim. But, we'll keep checking the Danish prime minister's Twitter feed.

Here is a transcript of the December 11 exchange on Today:

7:15AM ET

(...)

LAUER: Meanwhile, what about this picture that's making the rounds this morning? A lot of people talking about the selfie that was taken. That is the Danish prime minister, David Cameron there as well, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, and President Obama taking a selfie at the memorial service. And a lot of people are asking the question, "Was it appropriate?" And then we'll get into the second part of this. What do think?

GUTHRIE: Well, I think some people thought it's not appropriate because it's a funeral. On the other hand, it wasn't a funeral, it was a memorial service.

AL ROKER: It was a memorial, it was a celebration.

GUTHRIE: It was a celebration.

LAUER: There were people singing and dancing all around them.

GUTHRIE: Right.

LAUER: But then if you widen upright here, it does not look like Mrs. Obama is amused. There's a different angle there, but if you go back to the original selfie, she does not look incredibly  amused and people are saying that perhaps she was angry about the behavior.

MORALES: I think we've all been caught in the moment sometimes. You get your picture taken where you don't have the right expression. She's at a memorial service, a somber occasion, so.

LAUER: She could have been thinking about a thousand other things...

ROKER: Exactly.

LAUER: ...and you have no idea, no way to read into that.

MORALES: I think people are blowing that out of proportion.

ROKER: But they're gonna take it and go with the negative, of course.

LAUER: No question about it.

GUTHRIE: Well, we agree it's the selfie that launched a thousand caption contests at least?

LAUER: Yeah, exactly.

MORALES: It sure did.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC