U.S. journalists covering President Obama‘s detail in China are learning that access is even harder there than it is here. Officials nearly came to blows this week upon arrival, according to White House pool reports written by American and European journalists. Obama is in Hangzhou for a bilateral meeting with President Xi Jimping.
In a bit of foreshadowing, WSJ‘s Carol Lee wrote, “Press access issues look very tricky, so patience with your poolers please.”
But “tricky” was a serious understatement.
“A bit of chaos on the tarmac,” Lee wrote Saturday. “Pool was brought under the wing of AF1 per usual but the scene was not per usual. There were no stairs to the top door to AF1, instead President Obama exited via the lower level stairs so pool could hardly see him, and only for a split second as he exited at 2:30pm. A member of the Chinese delegation was screaming at White House staff from the moment pool got onto the tarmac. He wanted he US press to leave. The Chinese had put up a blue rope under the wing so pool had to stand behind it. This man was demanding the pool, which was behind the blue rope, get away from the arrival scene altogether.”
A “weekend guidance” report from the White House press office warns that there would be a “pool spray” at the top of the expanded meeting, but that the restricted meeting would be “closed press.” Dinner with Jimping: Also, “closed press.” On Sunday morning, Obama is scheduled for a meeting with UK Prime Minister Theresa May. The meeting is closed press but the White House report says there will be pool coverage.
Still, continued Lee, from there, things got worse.
“At one point a White House official told him this was our president and our plane and the press wasn’t moving. The man yelled, ‘this is our country.’ He yelled at another White House official and got testy with Susan Rice and Ben Rhodes, seeming to try to block them from walking closer to the arrival scene after they lifted the blue rope and walked to the other side of it, nearer to POTUS. The red carpet was lined on both sides with greeters so there was no ability for cameras to get a photo or video footage of POTUS greeting people as he walked to the presidential limo, which was at the end of the red carpet.”
Lee added a note of sarcasm: “Motorcade was rolling within minutes after that warm welcome.”
There were a wide variety of poolers trying to cover the meetings.
So much so, that Anne Walters, a correspondent for German Press Agency, dpa, wrote, “Apologies for disorganization in pool numbering given multiple poolers and poor connectivity.”
The Washington Post‘s William Wan also wrote of strife between the American media and Chinese officials. The flap appears to be about security personnel versus media and the number of reporters who can enter the meeting.
“The difficulties and disagreements between US and Chinese officials continued at the westlake statehouse,” he wrote. “A group of White House staff arrived in advance of President at the Westlake statehouse (along with pool press) were stopped at security checkpoint at gate. White house staff, protocol officers and secret service, trying to enter separately from press, spent 15 mins in heated arguments with Chinese security officials over how many Americans could be allowed to go through security at a time. How many people the White House were allowed to be in building before the President’s arrival. Which US officials were on which listen a folder with thick pile of name lists.”
The whole thing appeared to turn into a shitshow.
“The President is arriving here in an hour,” one White House staffer was overheard saying in exasperation.
The report continued, “As the disagreement escalated, a Chinese official assisting the Americans grew angered by how guards were treating the White House staff and began yelling, nearly coming to blows with one of the Chinese security officials.”
He yelled at the official: “You don’t push people. No one gave you the right to touch or push anyone around.”
“Another Chinese official trying to help US officials stepped between the two who were arguing once the security official began approaching, looking like he was going to throw a punch,” reported WaPo‘s Wan.
“Calm down please. Calm down,” pleaded a White House official. “Stop, please,” said a foreign ministry official in Chinese. “There are reporters here.”
Right, there are reporters there. Ya think?
“Once inside, White House press officers engaged in another fight over how many American journalists would be allowed. “You’re only allowed 10,” said a Chinese official.
But a White House official countered, “That’s not right.”
Some 20 minutes before Obama scheduled arrival, “U.S. press officers were still arguing in the room where two presidents would soon be meeting along with Ban Ki Moon to talk of their cooperation. As U.S. officials pleaded for two U.S. journalists left outside to be allowed to stand in the back of the room.”
A White House press officer argued, “There’s space. They are print reporters. They would just be standing.”
Noted WaPo‘s Wan rather dramatically: “It was a fight they did not win.”
But…soon that changed. In Wan’s next report, the “last two reporters mentioned in precious pool report got in (thanks to valiant press handlers).”
And thank God they did, because there were much needed pictures of trees and flowers.
“Room for climate change meeting is padded with thick lush teal carpeting…a large silk screen print with calming scene of trees and flowers stands to the side of podium.”
And in what may be the most ridiculous response from a U.S. official concerning this mess, a reporter asked National Security Advisor Susan Rice, “What happened at the airport?”
She replied, “They did things that weren’t anticipated.”
Horribly, that wasn’t even the end to the battle between the press and Chinese officials.
Presidents Obama and Jimping concluded their talk with a romantic-sounding nighttime stroll through the diplomatic compound.
According to Wan, “Even as pool was preparing to give you the most riveting account of a stroll in the history of White House coverage, Chinese officials suddenly cut the number of U.S. journalists who would be allowed to witness the stroll from the original six to three and finally to one.”
A Chinese official told a White House press official: “That is our arrangement.”
The White House press official replied, “But your arrangement keeps changing.”
After lengthy negotiations, two members of the White House media got to witness the stroll — a cameraman and a still photographer.
“Meanwhile, your Pool is sitting in the lobby, thinking dark thoughts,” Wan wrote. “But also making quite vow to himself that he will review the cameraman’s dark footage in the van and put to words the full epic and dramatic nature of this elusive stroll.”