Networks Tout Michelle Obama's Sightseeing and Ping Pong in China; Still Ignore Press Ban

All three network morning shows on Friday fawned over First Lady Michelle Obama's visit to China, but the broadcasts refused to mention that reporters had been banned from accompanying her on the trip. On Thursday, NBC's Today and CBS This Morning both insisted the overseas travel was "not political" while ignoring the press corps being left behind.   

In a full report for Friday's Today, White House correspondent Peter Alexander proclaimed: "This trip is really focused on building good will. White House aides are confident that the First Lady's personal story will also resonate with the Chinese people....It's a highly anticipated visit to a country whose relationship with the U.S. is complicated at best." All the more reason to allow American journalists to go along. [Listen to the audio]

Alexander described the First Lady's itinerary: "On tap, three stops. First, Beijing, touring the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, then a trip to Xi'an and the Terra Cotta Warriors, finally Chengdu and its famed pandas." He added: "The White House insists this week-long visit is designed to emphasize cultural ties and education, intentionally steering clear of controversial topics..."

The only criticism of the trip in the two and a half minute segment was at the very end, when Alexander noted: "Critics have complained that this is just an expensive taxpayer-funded family vacation." He quickly assured viewers: "The White House insists that's not the case."  

ABC's Good Morning America, which skipped the China visit on Thursday, only offered a news brief on Friday, with fill-in news reader Amy Robach gushing: "[Michelle Obama] played a little ping pong this morning in Beijing as she started a week-long trip to China. Nice moves there, Mrs. Obama."

Friday's CBS This Morning similarly provided a single news brief in which co-host Charlie Rose declared: "Mrs. Obama tried her hand at Chinese calligraphy, then she picked up a paddle for some ping pong."

Here is a full transcript of the March 21 report on Today:

7:19 AM ET

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: And now to First Lady Michelle Obama's week-long tour of China. She's focusing a lot of time on education there, she visited a high school in Beijing just this morning. But is there a bigger diplomatic message behind her trip? NBC's White House correspondent Peter Alexander has more on that part of the story. Peter, good morning.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: First Family in the Far East; Michelle Obama & Daughters Arrive in China]  

PETER ALEXANDER: Savannah, good morning. President Obama and China's president are going to meet in Europe early next week. The First Lady is going to leave the heavy lifting on divisive issues to them. This trip is really focused on building good will. White House aides are confident that the First Lady's personal story will also resonate with the Chinese people.

They make an impressive pair, First Lady Michelle Obama and her charismatic host today, China's first lady Madame Pang, a celebrated folk singer and fashion icon at home. It's a highly anticipated visit to a country whose relationship with the U.S. is complicated at best.

BEN RHODES [DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER]: The message of this trip is really that the relationship between the United States and China isn't just between leaders, it's also between people.

ALEXANDER: Accompanying the First Lady, the first daughters and their grandmother, three generations. A subtle gesture to the importance of family in traditional Chinese culture. The Obama girls, who have traveled to the UK, Botswana, and South Africa, may take particular interest in this trip. Especially 12-year-old Sasha, who took Mandarin classes and even tried out a few words on China's past president during a state visit.

On tap, three stops. First, Beijing, touring the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, then a trip to Xi'an and the Terra Cotta Warriors, finally Chengdu and its famed pandas. The White House insists this week-long visit is designed to emphasize cultural ties and education, intentionally steering clear of controversial topics that past first ladies, including Hillary Clinton, addressed head on.

HILLARY CLINTON [SEPTEMBER 15, 1995]: It is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights.

ALEXANDER: Laura Bush accused China of not doing enough to pressure Burma's brutal regime.

ANITA MCBRIDE: They are the most visible surrogate.

ALEXANDER: Bush's former chief of staff Anita McBride says Mrs. Obama has chosen to leave politics to the President.

MCBRIDE: And I think people may have had an expectation that she would engage in other issues, even before this trip to China. But she's doing exactly what she wants to do.

ALEXANDER: President Obama's top ambassadors embracing diplomacy with a First Lady's touch.

And aides here say during a talk at a Beijing university tomorrow, Michelle Obama will raise one topic that's controversial in China, that's the issue of internet freedom.

Savannah, critics have complained that this is just an expensive taxpayer-funded family vacation. The White House insists that's not the case.

GUTHRIE: Alright, Peter Alexander at the White House for us. Thank you.

— Kyle Drennen is News Analyst at the Media Research Center. Follow Kyle Drennen on Twitter.