By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON, Dec 12 (Reuters) - On a normal day, press briefings at the White House can be quiet, often somewhat boring affairs.
The press secretary, Jay Carney, sticks to a series of talking points and reporters try - often unsuccessfully - to get nuggets of news about the big and small stories of the day.
Not so on Thursday, when a question about press access to President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush on their joint trip to South Africa for Nelson Mandela's memorial service this week erupted into a heated back-and-forth about transparency and the role of reporters covering the White House.
Obama's communications team has been under fire from news organizations for restricting photojournalists from shooting pictures of what the White House calls private presidential moments that an official photographer often ends up photographing and sending out to the pubic via social media.
During the trip to South Africa, the press pool traveling on Air Force One was not given access to the front of the plane to take pictures of Obama and Bush and their wives on what was a rare, long, and historic joint flight, but official pictures were released from the White House.
Carney said on Thursday that the Obama White House was committed to transparency and would work hard to address journalists' grievances about access, though he stopped short of promising specific actions.
"From the president on down, everyone here believes strongly in the absolute necessity of a free and independent press to cover the presidency, to cover the government, to cover Washington," he said.
"I can commit to you that we are working and have been working on expanding access where we can."
Reporters weren't having it.
"It was President Obama who talked about transparency being a hallmark of his administration," said one. "Isn't it sort of the problem ... that he has set up a standard himself that he's not meeting?"
The issue of photographers is part of a broader theme of press access to the Obama White House.
According to data compiled by Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist at Towson University in Maryland who studies the presidency, Obama has held significantly fewer short question-and-answer sessions with reporters than his two immediate predecessors, Republican Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton.
Such sessions, which are not full-fledged news conferences and take place in the Oval Office or other White House locations, occurred 119 times by the end of October with Obama compared to 384 in the same period for Bush and 713 for Clinton.
Obama had done 41 full-fledged solo news conferences in that time period, however, compared to 25 for Bush and 50 for Clinton.
Last month the White House Correspondents' Association and major news organizations, including Reuters, wrote to Carney to complain about being shut out of events that the White House documented with its own photographer and urged access to all public governmental events in which the president participates. (Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Eric Beech)