WaPo Now Wonders If Michelle's Target Photos Were Just Orchestrated PR with AP

Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi is finding a lot of unusual circumstances -- and unusual no-comments -- around Michelle Obama's razzle-dazzle distraction outing to Target after her latest controversy over wearing $42,000 diamond bracelets. He found "there might have been something to the notion of White House orchestration." Farhi's story did not note how the Post's own gossip columnists were eagerly orchestrated to coo over the photo (including on NBC).

Is the AP granting the First Lady a publicity favor to curb the Michelle Antoinette echoes that will give them increased access later in return? If the official White House photographer had taken these shots, Farhi noted, the rest of the press would have seen them as promotional. Somehow they weren't if AP put their prestige on the credit line instead. Farhi lined up all the improbabilities:

Neither the White House nor the Associated Press will say how AP photographer Charles Dharapak came to be the only news photographer present at the Alexandria Target to capture Obama’s shopping excursion.

“All I can say is that it was the result of good source work on his part,” AP spokesman Paul Colford said, declining to elaborate on the sources or the work involved. [Cue the laugh track.]

A spokeswoman for Michelle Obama, Kristina Schake, also declined to discuss how the photographs came about. In a statement, she said, “It is not uncommon for the First Lady to slip out to run an errand, eat at a local restaurant or otherwise enjoy the city outside the White House gates.”

But it is uncommon, and perhaps unprecedented, for a single news organization to record such a trip. First ladies, such as Laura Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton, occasionally went shopping or on outings in Washington without anyone in the media tagging along.

An official White House photographer often records private or personal moments involving the president and first lady. But news organizations are hesitant to publish such photos because they are considered promotional. Having a respected news organization such as the Associated Press take and distribute the photos, on the other hand, might increase their newsworthiness, considering that they were produced independent of the White House’s image-making machinery.

As a practical matter, it’s difficult to know in advance where a first lady is headed without White House cooperation. Obama, unlike the president, doesn’t travel with a regular press retinue that records every public moment. The White House doesn’t “provide details about the first lady’s personal activities” to protect her privacy, said Semonti Stephens, a spokeswoman.

Dharapak, who has declined interview requests, is a veteran news photographer assigned to the White House. He doesn’t regularly cover the first lady, though he was part of the press pool that shot pictures of her family trip to southern Africa in June.

Moreover, Dharapak appears to have been fortunate to have been able to take photos inside the store. Corporate chains such as Target prohibit news photography on company-owned premises without prior permission. Camera crews that went to the Alexandria Target after the photos were released were allowed to shoot footage inside the store only with the company’s approval and only in designated areas for a limited time.

Farhi began by noting how conservative talkers Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh found it suspiciously phony from the get-go. "What a phony-baloney plastic-banana good time rock-and-roll photo op," said Limbaugh.

Near the end, Farhi claimed Mrs. Obama has "taken an unusual amount of criticism for a first lady from the likes of Limbaugh and other conservatives," and "the sniping was renewed" over the $42,000 bracelet story. Somehow, the reporter missed both the consistent conservative attention paid to Hillary Rodham Clinton and the way the media treated Nancy Reagan as Nancy Antoinette. Once again, those cooperative Post gossips skipped over the $42,000 bracelet story.

Farhi's story ended by Farhi rebutting himself, finding a liberal journalism professor to insist that what looks obvious probably isn't obvious:

Bob Steele, a journalism ethics professor at DePauw University in Indiana, says the available facts don’t quite warrant the conclusion that Mrs. Obama’s trip to Target was calculated to counter that criticism.

“Journalists and news organizations should not allow themselves to be manipulated in the pursuit of truthful and fair news coverage,” he said, adding, “and, in general, they should be more open about revealing the methods and processes they use to gather the news,” such as disclosing any agreements made with a news source.

But in this case, he said, “absent some cards that haven’t been turned face up on the table, there’s no evidence to suggest that the White House and AP were in cahoots.”

Dear Professor Steele: when neither source will speak on the record as to how the photo shoot occurred, how is that not evidence to suggest someone's trying to deny cahoots? Someone likes the Democrats enough to look completely foolish and gullible in the Washington Post.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis