As First lady lauds free press, questions about her media access

First lady Michelle Obama’s trip to China has garnered massive attention in this vast country over the past five days, as an aggressive pack of Chinese journalists has followed her every move and penned hundreds of stories about her visit.

But coverage of the trip has been made more difficult by tight restrictions on reporters and photographers, who have been kept far away from many events and were not allowed to accompany the first lady, her mother and her two daughters on their flight last week from the United States. Obama has had only one written question-and-answer session with a Chinese-based independent news outlet.

The constraints, including an absence of interviews by U.S. news reporters, have prompted objections from some journalists and conservative commentators, who see a contrast between Obama’s remarks here in favor of a free press and the restrictive nature of her travels.

The criticism comes during a trip that has turned out to be, in some respects, more substantive than expected. Obama extolled the virtues of journalistic freedom at Peking University in Beijing, discussed education policy with teachers at the U.S. Embassy and, on Tuesday, invoked the importance of the struggle for civil rights at a high school here in Chengdu. She is also slated to visit with members of the Tibetan community here on Wednesday.

The situation is further complicated by the difficult media environment in China, where the communist government controls much of the media and negotiations between officials from the first lady’s office and the Chinese agency that oversees media access have been visibly contentious. Chinese press officials have shoved U.S. reporters around physically at some venues, prompting objections from Obama’s staff.

Chinese reporters and photographers are known for their aggressiveness. On Michelle Obama’s first stop at a Beijing classroom last week, daughters Malia and Sasha were separated from their mother amid shoving by Chinese journalists to get the best spot.

The first lady has maintained a remote relationship with the news media in recent years, holding press events but granting few interviews outside entertainment and talk-show outlets. Her staff has focused on building her ­social-media presence in a bid to reach young people, aides said, and during the China trip has granted interviews to media outlets focused on children.

Out of four overseas trips without her husband, the first lady has traveled with a press pool once — in Africa in 2011. East Wing officials say the plane she uses on solo trips is much smaller than the president’s Air Force One, making it difficult to accommodate reporters. Traveling press pools are customary on foreign travel for Cabinet members and other senior government officials, however.

Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, said that when U.S. presidents or first ladies travel abroad “they bring a demonstration of what a free press means with them.”

“If there’s no press, that’s a demonstration,” he said. “If there’s a lively press that gets what it needs, that’s a demonstration. . . .What happens says something about what is the American concept of a free press.”

Steven Thomma, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and senior White House correspondent and political editor for McClatchy, said the East Wing turned down requests for a group of journalists — known as a “travel pool” — to accompany Obama throughout the trip.

“We’d always prefer to have our pool on the plane,” Thomma said in an e-mail. “That puts journalists closer to the news at every step.”

In addition to Beijing-based correspondents for U.S. news organizations, two news outlets, including The Washington Post, sent reporters from Washington to China to cover her visit, which was billed as a goodwill tour focused on education. The White House and the U.S. Embassy arranged for reporters to travel in the first lady’s motorcade on several occasions to cover events and set up vans and drivers for other events. Those services are billed to the news organizations.

At Peking University last week, Obama stressed the importance of an open press in a speech focused on cultural exchange. “That’s how we learn what’s really happening in our communities, our country and our world,” she said.

East Wing aides say they have worked to overcome logistical obstacles in China and have advocated on behalf of U.S. media organizations with the government here.

“We knew that it was going to be a challenge, so even before we were wheels-up, we worked closely with the White House Correspondents’ Association to make sure that we had unilateral coverage in China,” said MC González, the first lady’s communications director. “Once we landed here, we maintained a balance of being very nimble on our end and adjusting to situations as they arrived.”

At the initial stop, a high school in Beijing, Obama entered a robotics classroom with her family and China’s first lady Peng Liyuan. It was crammed with more than a dozen reporters, about 15 students, security officers from both countries and staff for both first ladies. As Obama moved around the room, Chinese photographers pushed in for a closer shot, in the process crowding Marian Robinson, Obama’s mother. The two Obama daughters were also cut off by scrambling Chinese journalists as the event wrapped up.

From then on, reporters were kept farther away from the U.S. first family, and members of Obama’s staff briefed reporters afterward.

During the first lady’s visit to the Terra Cotta Army and other tourist attractions in ancient Xi’an, U.S. reporters were physically pushed by Chinese press officials and corralled behind hand-held red ropes that the officials moved around. Obama’s staff objected to the pushing.

Chinese officials have a long history of rough treatment of reporters. During a 1989 visit by first lady Barbara Bush, official White House photographer Carol Powers had her jaw dislocated by Chinese security officers during a visit to the Forbidden City, according to Bush’s memoir.

Members of Obama’s staff said they went directly to meet with their Chinese counterparts upon arrival in Beijing to finalize a plan for media access. Along the way, they advocated to let reporters sit in on a question-and-answer Obama did with students. One Obama meeting with Chinese teachers and students at the U.S. Embassy was closed to the media; Obama aides said that was a requirement of some Chinese participants.

In trying to get at least one U.S. reporter, videographer and photographer into events, including a meeting Obama had with President Xi Jinping, González said her team worked for access “while also having an understanding for our counterparts and being respectful of their requests.”

Rather than meeting with traditional reporters, Obama will participate in an Internet class for 36,000 U.S. students through Discovery Education, while PBS Learning Media is along on the trip to prepare classroom materials. The first lady’s staff has promoted the trip on Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites.

The visit has made a big splash in China, with more than 1,600 stories published here during the first three days of the trip. A video Obama posted on her White House travel blog has been viewed more than 1.5 million times in China, and her blog includes the speech in which she calls for Internet access and press freedom.

“It is estimated that nearly everyone in China has seen, heard, or read at least one story or photo about the visit,” U.S. Embassy officials said in a statement.

Liu Liu in Beijing and David A. Nakamura in Washington contributed to this report.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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