As most of you probably know, Michelle Obama headed out to Target the other day for a “regular folks” shopping excursion. But unlike most regular folks, an Associated Press photographer somehow showed up to catch the moment.
The AP, commenting to POLITICO, attributed the presence of the photographer to “good source work.” The problem with this is that news photographers don’t do reporting and don’t have sources – they show up for events and take pictures. Someone from the first lady’s office must have either directly or through some surrogate tipped off the AP or its photographer.
Placing the first lady an public, uncontrolled situation is a very delicate security matter. There is no way this would leak out to the Associated Press without her office providing the tip with the intention that she be photographed there.
This is a situation that presents a major difficulty for journalists. You are clearly being used by your subject, but it is impossible to resist the news value of the event. In deciding whether to cover it, you have to weigh the relative importance of the event against the obvious manipulation.
You almost always have to err on the side of coverage. A first lady shopping at Target is not the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it is news. And what if she dropped a glass bottle of grape juice and you weren’t on hand to take the shot?
Adding to the misery of the compromise AP likely made is that there must have been some kind of agreement not to tell any AP reporters about the excursion – they surely would have wanted to come along. And likely too a deal for for the photographer to take the picture at the end of Mrs. Obama’s visit, since we only have photos of her at the cashier.
Since becoming first lady, Michelle has experienced a quite successful image makeover, morphing from a candidate’s wife with low approval ratings who had never been proud of her country into a popular first lady devoted to helping military families and making kids thin.
Her Achilles Heel has been her visible predilection for the finer things in life, even as the country wallows in a painful recession that her husband can’t fix. She’s taken expensive vacations and semi-vacations to places like Spain and South Africa, with taxpayers having to pick up many of the costs. And she’s frequently seen decked out in jewelry and clothes costing several aisles worth of Target stuff.
So this was a PR stunt. Merely the choice of AP suggests a PR stunt. Using the AP is the quickest and most efficient way to circulate the photo around the country.
And it metastasized across the media. Take a look at this fawning coverage by NBC, which includes a pro forma mention of her exorbitant tastes but focuses mainly on what the White House wants – an average mom goes shopping.
Hats off the the the First Lady’s communications team. They understand their problem, and they know how to use a fawning press to get a solution.