Being embedded in the White House gives a videographer access not available to any independent news outlet. The White House now has an official videographer, but it's unclear what the position is costing taxpayers and whether the position operates in the same non-political manner that has characterized the official still photographer.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave us the fireside radio chat. John F. Kennedy added the presidential photographer. Ronald Reagan launched the modern Saturday radio address. And now Barack Obama has created the official videographer, amping up the arsenal that presidents can summon to burnish their image.
Officials are mum on many of the details about the newest weapon in the White House messaging machine, declining repeated requests from the Washington Guardian to say how much the new operation has cost since it was started in 2010 or to identify the exact federal budget line it is being charged to.
But the videographer's early work -- a "West Wing Week" package summarizing Obama's work week complete with feel-good music and footage of enthusiastic crowds -- has some wondering whether taxpayers are footing the bill for what they say amounts to a political ad.
The two people who have held the job both worked for Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. And some of the weekly videos match the messages of the Obama re-election campaign ads or the week's political events.
"There’s always been a degree of controversy over how a president separates purely official duties and business from campaigning," said Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union, a nonpartisan group in Washington that monitors federal spending and advocates lower taxes. "The first step here would at least be to get some cost transparency so that citizens can weigh whether something like this is worth the expense."
Added Tim Groeling, chair of Communication Studies at UCLA and an expert on how presidents interact with the media: “This is all part of a broader intent to maximize the positive content.”
Obama promised on his first day in office to create "an unprecedented level of openness in government," but White House officials are uncharacteristically closed-lip about the video operation.
Deputy White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest, who narrates the weekly video, declined to provide any information about the costs, salary or budget lines for the project. And more than a dozen officials in the White House, ranging from the budget office, which monitors spending, to the digital outreach office, which supervises the videographer, declined to answer questions.
"I just don't think we're going to engage here," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in an email Tuesday.
Arun Chaudhary, who served as the first White House videographer, told the Washington Guardian in an interview that he was paid as a federal employee. But neither he nor his successor appear on the official White House staff salary list made public each year, in the Office of Personnel Management employee database, or in the General Services Administration contract database.
Whatever the budget implications, political communications experts say having an official videographer is a natural progression for a president who in 2008 created an unprecedented digital tether to voters via text messages, email, tweets and Facebook postings.
While the White House has long had the ability to capture footage of official presidential activities, the videographer allows Obama to tailor the message of the week's events, adding a positive spin that can yield short-term political advantage and create a long-term historical context, the experts said.
Giving access – sometimes exclusively – to the White House videographer is “yet another in a series of steps in message management,” UCLA's Groeling said. "This administration has been somewhat aggressive compared to other administrations" on that front, he said.
The “West Wing Week,” a series of weekly videos that capture the president’s speeches and travel, as well as life behind the camera, started in 2010 as the brainchild of Chaudhary, a multimedia expert for Obama during the 2008 campaign, and who was named the first official White House videographer.
Chaudhary, who left the White House last year and works for a firm that consults on mobile strategies, said the idea was to “present a window into the presidency.”
“We had kind of reached a level of public interest and a technology level where we were able to make these things,” he said.
The videos appear on the White House Web site, as well as video sharing sites such as Hulu and YouTube, where they garner between 10,000 and 40,000 views per episode. The videos feature lots of close-up footage, graphics and music to create a controlled, upbeat atmosphere. They are narrated by Earnest, the White House spokesman.
Many clips are from the president’s speeches, often on subjects his re-election campaign is also advocating.
For instance, on the same day that Obama told a campaign rally that presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney's "top-down" economic approach would hurt the middle class, the White House videographer released a video with excerpts from one of the president's speeches, warning against "top-down economics" that would hurt the middle class.
While any president's public expressions of opinion are likely to remain the same while campaigning and acting as president, the similarities between the political footage and the taxpayer-funded official footage add to the suspicions of those who see a political motive to the operation.
The videos are also heavily laden with positive messages and images. Since January, two rallies on Pennsylvania Avenue that supported Obama's policies have been featured in the weekly videos, but there has been no footage in the videos of any protests against the president.
Many of the videos show the president holding a baby.
In contrast, the official White House photographer has on occasion produced images embarrassing to the president. A search of images in the Gerald R. Ford presidential library yielded a photo by official photographer David Hume Kennerly depicting Ford sprawled at the bottom of the steps of Air Force One.
The videos often use politically-loaded sentences, such as the president continuing "to put pressure on Republicans in Congress to prevent a tax increase on 98 percent of Americans next year."
Chaudhary said they were never meant to be campaign ads.
“It’s presenting the real article to people so they can make their own decisions about it,” he said.
The current Obama still photographer – Pete Souza – also held the position during Ronald Reagan’s second term. But Chaudhary was a member of Obama’s campaign team, and when he left the White House in 2011, he was replaced by Hope Hall, a former videographer for Obama and Vice President Joe Biden during the campaign.
Chaudhary - who has written an upcoming book about his experiences in the White House - said he strived to keep his videos neutral and unbiased. When he worked on the campaign, what he taped and what he did with it were very different, he said. As the official videographer, however, his purpose changed to helping “present the presidency for posterity” and depicting things as they actually happen.
Using video to present a certain side of an issue is not new, Groeling said. In 2004, during the Bush administration, several government agencies were producing their own visual packages and sending them to media outlets to be used as news stories.
But Obama is the first to have an official videographer follow him around the White House and on his travels.
Sepp said this type of messaging isn't going to go away.
"There are many tools available to incumbents on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for helping to portray their activities in a favorable light," he said. "I imagine given the increased use of social media...this sort of project will become commonplace."
Presenting behind-the-scenes, sometimes candid moments of the president could help him connect with voters this year, but Chaudhary said he thinks it’s Obama’s personality that’s driving both the “West Wing Week” and his campaign.
“The same things that make him such a good subject for these videos are the things that help him connect with voters," he said.
Chaudhary said he hopes the position of official White House videographer continues past Obama’s time as president. But he said the test will be how comfortable each president is with being taped most of the time.
“The real test will be once President Obama has a videographer who he doesn’t know personally,” he said.
The Office of Digital Strategies is a newly created office which handles online and multimedia projects for the White House.
The "West Wing Week" series of videos, produced by the White House's videographer, detail the president's weekly activities
A videographer is a person who makes films with a video camera.