On Wednesday morning as controversy swirled over the president abruptly firing his FBI chief amid an investigation of possible ties between Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia, the president met in the Oval Office with none other than Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
But the meeting was closed press, meaning the rotating pool of photographers, reporters and camera operators who follow the president weren’t allowed in. Yet photos of the three laughing and smiling were soon published by the Russian state news agency TASS. The Russian foreign ministry also tweeted photos of the meeting.
Asked by the print pooler why members of the Russian media were allowed into the meeting but no U.S. press was permitted, a White House official said, "Our official photographer and their official photographer were present, that’s it," meaning TASS was considered the Russians’ "official photographer."
Controversy over access to meetings with the president is not new. Barack Obama’s White House was widely criticized for holding closed press meetings, only to later share photos shot by the president’s official photographer Pete Souza. In 2013, the White House Correspondents’ Association said that practice amounted to establishing "the White House’s own Soviet-style news service."
On Wednesday, media outlets had to contend with how to present photos that were clearly newsworthy but were also state-sponsored handouts from a foreign government.
Fox News chose not to air them, with anchor Jenna Lee noting that while the photos were available online, "we are choosing not to show them because as part of the press here in the United States, we think it’s important that the press have access to official photos from the White House."
At MSNBC, a photo was briefly aired, while White House correspondent Hallie Jackson explained that it came from the Russians. Andrea Mitchell later made a note about "freedom of the press" around the American media being blocked from the meeting.
CNN also aired a photo, choosing to show it directly from the Russian foreign ministry and embassy’s Twitter feed. Anchor Wolf Blitzer pointed out that "American pool cameras were not allowed into the room for any coverage."
Over at CBS, head of standards Al Ortiz sent an email to staff saying they "should and could" use the photos, "but you should say where they came from (Russian government), and we should report that the US pool was kept out of the meeting."