NBC, CBS Tout Obamas ‘Acting Like Tourists’ During ‘Historic’ Cuba Trip

On Monday, while ABC’s Good Morning America aired a softball interview with President Obama from Cuba, NBC’s Today and CBS This Morning both celebrated the First Family “acting like tourists” during their “historic” trip to the Communist dictatorship.

At the top of Today, co-host Matt Lauer acknowledged that the presidential visit was a “controversial,” but only minutes later touted it as “historic” as he turned to NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt. Reporting live from Havana, Holt proclaimed: “History being made, the President waking up here on Cuban soil....The entire First Family along for the trip, acting like tourists. Doing what most tourists do here, taking a walk through old Havana.”

The headline on screen announced: “President’s Historic Trip to Cuba; Cubans Pack Streets as Obama to Meet Raul Castro.”

Holt detailed the Obamas’ travel itinerary, with a brief mention of controversy:

Sparse crowds lined the streets under a steady downpour as the President's motorcade made its way through the city. At his first stop, the cathedral in old Havana, Mr. Obama took an impromptu detour to shake hands, then smiling and waving at a cheering crowd. Inside the cathedral, the President met with Cuba’s controversial cardinal, Jaime Ortega, who some have criticized as not speaking out more forcefully in favor of human rights. Then on to the Havana city museum, where a portrait of President Lincoln greeted the First Family. And finally, dinner at a restaurant called San Cristobal, back in the narrow streets of old Havana.

Holt claimed “the sight-seeing is a prelude to the real business of the trip,” a meeting between Obama and Cuban dictator Raul Castro. Observing that the two “will likely discuss lifting the U.S. trade embargo and Cuba's human rights record,” Holt noted: “Just hours before the President arrived, a group of dissidents known as The Ladies in White was arrested, chanting, ‘Libertad,’ or ‘Freedom.’”

At the end of his report, Holt took notice of Republican criticism of the trip: “Meanwhile, back in the states, the President's trip is already under fire from Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, who mocked the fact that the President was met by Cuban's foreign minister, not President Raul Castro. Tweeting that, ‘Castro greeted the Pope and others. No respect.’”

At the top of the 8 a.m. ET hour, fill-in news anchor Tamron Hall declared: “History in Havana this morning as President Obama breaks through a half century of Cold War hostility to meet his Cuban counterpart.” In the report that followed, correspondent Andrea Mitchell hailed: “...President Obama's visit officially opens today when he meets with Cuba's President Castro. Castro is sure to raise their complaints that despite the President's recent measures to loosen trade and travel restrictions, the relationship with Cuba can never been fully repaired until congress lifts the economic embargo.”

Human rights were a secondary concern: “The President has signaled that he will press hard for more freedom of speech here. But hours before the President landed in Cuba, the Cubans cracked down hard on a group of women who protest silently every Sunday after church. They're known as The Ladies in White.”

Even after highlighting such a crackdown, Mitchell gushed:

Still, there is a lot of goodwill on this visit. Cuba is allowing the President to speak directly to the Cuban people tomorrow even though the White House has made it clear he will be speaking about human rights, which is usually something that is not done here. That's considered a major step, raising hopes something important could indeed come from this historic visit.

Leading off CBS This Morning, co-host Norah O’Donnell thrilled: “President Obama prepares to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro in an effort to end more than 50 years of hostility. We’re in Havana for the historic trip.” Moments later, sounding nearly identical to Holt, she added: “Well, for the first time in nearly nine decades, a sitting American president is waking up in Cuba. President Obama's historic arrival in Havana yesterday ends decades of isolation between the U.S. and Cuba.”

The on-screed headline decreed: “History in Havana; Obama Visit First From U.S. President in 88 Years.”

Fellow co-host Gayle King chimed in: “Six in ten Americans in a new CBS News/New York Times poll think that restoring diplomacy with Cuba is mostly good for the United States. And 40% say it will lead to more democracy in Cuba, just 3% say less. 50% say it make no difference at all.”

Correspondent Margaret Brennan continued with the histrionics: “This was the view of Air Force One as it glided on to the tarmac. Minutes later, President Barack Obama peeked out of the doorway, becoming the first U.S. sitting president to visit since Calvin Coolidge arrived 88 years ago. Trailed by the First Family, Mr. Obama made history.” She fawned: “Hundreds of Cubans braved the rain to watch the presidential motorcade whisk by. Many hung from windows and waved to the First Family as they strolled through old Havana.”

To her credit, Brennan did inform viewers: “But some things have not changed in this authoritarian state. Just hours before Mr. Obama arrived, the Castro government arrested several dozen protesters. Improving human rights will be on the agenda during today's meeting with Cuban leader Raul Castro.”

In a news brief immediately following Brennan’s report, fill-in co-host Anthony Mason featured the President’s GOP critics:

ANTHONY MASON: The President's visit is sparking comments from Republican presidential candidates. Senator Ted Cruz, whose father was born in Cuba, calls it a sad day in American history.

TED CRUZ: When President Obama is there with Hollywood celebrities and rock musicians, drinking mojitos at the embassy, the political prisoners who are languishing are left behind by this president.

MASON: Donald Trump says he’s fine with the new approach to Cuba, but said the President was snubbed when he arrived in Havana. Trump tweeted, quote, “Wow, President Obama just landed in Cuba, a big deal, and Raul Castro wasn't even there to greet him. He greeted Pope and others. No respect.” The White House says an airport meeting was never discussed.  

Repeating the top story at the beginning of the 8 a.m. ET hour, O’Donnell hyped: “In just a few hours, President Obama will make history when he meets with Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana. Latin America is heralding the President’s Cuba visit as the start of a new era. He became the first sitting American president Sunday to set foot on the island in 88 years.”

Here are full transcripts of the initial March 21 reports on Today and This Morning:

Today
7:05 AM ET

MATT LAUER: Let's talk about the President now and historic trip – and his historic trip to Cuba. The First Family arrived last night and took a walking tour through the rain in old Havana. On the President's agenda today, a meeting with Raul Castro. NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt is in Havana. Hey, Lester, good morning.

LESTER HOLT: Hey, Matt, good morning. History being made, the President waking up here on Cuban soil. He is the first American president to visit here since Calvin Coolidge dropped in, in 1928. Think about it, Fidel Castro wasn't even 2 then. The entire First Family along for the trip, acting like tourists. Doing what most tourists do here, taking a walk through old Havana.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: President’s Historic Trip to Cuba; Cubans Pack Streets as Obama to Meet Raul Castro]

Sparse crowds lined the streets under a steady downpour as the President's motorcade made its way through the city. At his first stop, the cathedral in old Havana, Mr. Obama took an impromptu detour to shake hands, then smiling and waving at a cheering crowd. Inside the cathedral, the President met with Cuba’s controversial cardinal, Jaime Ortega, who some have criticized as not speaking out more forcefully in favor of human rights. Then on to the Havana city museum, where a portrait of President Lincoln greeted the First Family. And finally, dinner at a restaurant called San Cristobal, back in the narrow streets of old Havana.

The sight-seeing is a prelude to the real business of the trip, which begins later this morning when the President meets with Cuban president Raul Castro. They will likely discuss lifting the U.S. trade embargo and Cuba's human rights record. Just hours before the President arrived, a group of dissidents known as The Ladies in White was arrested, chanting, “Libertad,” or “Freedom.”

One of the highlights of the President's trip is expected to be when he addresses Cubans on Tuesday.

OBAMA: And it's an historic opportunity to engage directly with the Cuban people and for me to lay out my vision for a future that’s brighter than our past.

HOLT: I asked about that when I sat down with America’s top man in Cuba, Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis. Did you think you see the day where a U.S. president would be able to freely and by invitation address the Cuban people?

JEFFREY DELAURENTIS: It was a day I hoped for, but I'm confident this is the right time and it’ll be a very successful visit.

HOLT: Meanwhile, back in the states, the President's trip is already under fire from Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, who mocked the fact that the President was met by Cuban's foreign minister, not President Raul Castro. Tweeting that, “Castro greeted the Pope and others. No respect.”

The White House says no big deal that Raul Castro wasn't at the airport. They never anticipated or expected it, it was always planned that the official greeting would take place today. There will be a big state dinner later on here in Havana. Matt, and as I send it back to you, let me just point out that I bought this blazer first.

LAUER: That's okay. I feel like I'm in good company, Lester. Thanks very much. And let me remind people that you're going to have much more on the President's trip to Havana and Cuba on NBC Nightly News tonight.


CBS This Morning
7:03 AM ET

NORAH O’DONNELL: Well, for the first time in nearly nine decades, a sitting American president is waking up in Cuba. President Obama's historic arrival in Havana yesterday ends decades of isolation between the U.S. and Cuba. The visit also highlights big challenges on the Communist island, including concerns about human rights.

GAYLE KING: Six in ten Americans in a new CBS News/New York Times poll think that restoring diplomacy with Cuba is mostly good for the United States. And 40% say it will lead to more democracy in Cuba, just 3% say less. 50% say it make no difference at all. Margaret Brennan is in Havana with what the President hopes accomplish there. Margaret, good morning.  

MARGARET BRENNAN: Good morning. This is a direct appeal by President Obama to end a half century of tension. He will press Cuban President Raul Castro to try to make reforms and try to convince him that engagement is better than isolation.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: History in Havana; Obama Visit First From U.S. President in 88 Years]

This was the view of Air Force One as it glided on to the tarmac. Minutes later, President Barack Obama peeked out of the doorway, becoming the first U.S. sitting president to visit since Calvin Coolidge arrived 88 years ago. Trailed by the First Family, Mr. Obama made history.

BARACK OBAMA: Back in 1928, President Coolidge came on a battleship. It took him three days to get here. It only took me three hours. For the first time ever, Air Force One has landed in Cuba.

BRENNAN: Hundreds of Cubans braved the rain to watch the presidential motorcade whisk by. Many hung from windows and waved to the First Family as they strolled through old Havana.

But some things have not changed in this authoritarian state. Just hours before Mr. Obama arrived, the Castro government arrested several dozen protesters. Improving human rights will be on the agenda during today's meeting with Cuban leader Raul Castro.

And despite the ongoing trade embargo, they’ll discuss what they can do to strengthen economic ties. Several major business leaders are joined the President’s delegation, including the CEO of Xerox and executives from companies like Marriott and Starwood, which just struck a deal to become the first American hotel operator in Havana in nearly 60 years.

Now, the administration hopes that deeper financial ties will breathe life into the struggling Cuban economy and lead to irreversible change here in Cuba. But any progress is limited by the Castro government's slow moving reforms and that decades-long U.S. trade embargo. Anthony?

ANTHONY MASON: Margaret Brennan in Havana. Thanks, Margaret. 

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC