Michelle Obama took the saying “when in Rome” to heart as she showed utter disdain for freedom of the press on her trip to China.
The first lady lectured the Chinese on the benefits of the freedom of the press while refusing to take questions, do interviews or allow any reporters on her plane. The irony is striking.
Mrs. Obama, her daughters, mother and entourage of 70 returned Thursday from a weeklong trip to tour China. The taxpayers picked up the tab for touring Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu.
Just like government-run media, the White House gave details and photos during the week only by blog, YouTube videos made by her staff and Twitter.
While refusing to talk to the media herself, Mrs. Obama said the Chinese need to respect a free press. “It’s so important for information and ideas to flow freely over the Internet and through the media because that’s how we discover the truth,” she said at Peking University.
“My husband and I are on the receiving end of plenty of questioning and criticism from our media and our fellow citizens. And it’s not always easy, but we wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
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She somehow missed the contradiction in her words and actions.
Richard Grenell was the U.S. spokesman at the United Nations for the eight years of President George W. Bush’s administration. “The first lady is lucky that the Chinese public doesn’t have access to the real facts showing her trip devoid of the journalists’ scrutiny she speaks of,” he told me.
Mr. Grenell, a partner with the global communications firm Capitol Media Partners, pointed out that the White House press corps does not often challenge the strict limits set by Mr. Obama’s press staff.
The White House claimed the lack of press access was because it was not a political trip. Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for communications, said the message is that “the relationship between the United States and China is not just between leaders — it’s a relationship between peoples.”
Despite what Mr. Rhodes said, Mrs. Obama met with the leader himself — President Xi Jinping. There were brief, scripted remarks at the top for the media, but no questions. The majority of the meeting was “closed press,” and the only information came on background from an aide to the first lady.
During the week in China, the only media access to the first lady came when the White House allowed a press pool of American media based in China near her. The reports that come back demonstrated the frustration that the reporters and photographers felt about the lockout.
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The first lady of China, Peng Liyuan, gave Mrs. Obama a tour of the Forbidden City, but the pool was left outside. The two first ladies also enjoyed an “off the record” dinner with some kind of performance, about which the press could not get details.
After Mrs. Obama and her family went to the Museum of Terra Cotta Warriors, the report said: “Pool kept far away, no clue what was said. Michelle seemed to ask questions and gesture.”
At the Great Wall, the pool reporters were “sent ahead to Tower 15, and told they could not move from the top of the tower until told to do so” — while the Obamas later came through Tower 14.
On the descent, the Obama ladies skipped the gondola and took a ride on a hand-controlled toboggan. “No news photographers had been given a chance to capture this priceless moment,” noted the pooler in a dispatch back to the United States.
No matter what the White House claimed, this trip was 100 percent political. A private trip was the week Mrs. Obama spent in Hawaii after New Year’s to celebrate her 50th birthday at Oprah Winfrey’s house.
While the taxpayers had to pay to send an extra government plane to bring her home separately from her husband, at least there were no hotels, motorcades or a gazillion aides.
I was the deputy press secretary at the State Department for Secretaries of State Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice. My responsibility was to determine press interviews and media events for the secretary, both home and abroad.
I think the most outrageous move by this White House was not allowing reporters on the plane with the first lady.
Most likely, she traveled on the same Boeing 757 planes used for travel by the vice president and secretaries of state and defense. We had about 20 reporters who sat in the seats in the back section on every flight. (The media outlets pay for their travel.)
The enormous benefit for the media was that the secretary would often do an on-the-record briefing on the plane and take questions. There was also the advantage of off-the-record conversations to get to know the official better and perhaps get an understanding of a policy decision.
During refueling stops, the media was present in case anything happened. For Mrs. Obama, those takeoffs and landings were hidden from view.
The role of the press is to give the facts to the public and hold officials accountable. That is why the freedom for the media is so vital to a democracy. When the first lady is on official travel, the media should always be allowed to accompany her.
Emily Miller is senior editor of opinion for The Washington Times and author of “Emily Gets Her Gun” (Regnery, 2013).