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Journalists Get A Consolation Prize

CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson spoke to the three Radio Free Asia journalists who met with President Clinton Wednesday, after the Chinese government refused to grant them visas to go on the trip. She filed this report for CBS.com.

The three Radio Free Asia journalists who were booted from the trip to China at the last minute got a consolation prize Wednesday: a personal interview with the president of the United States.

Although China is granting visas to an unprecedented number of journalists for Mr. Clinton's trip, it cancelled visas for the three Radio Free Asia reporters over the weekend. Even high diplomatic contacts between the U.S. and China as late as Tuesday night failed to convince the Chinese to reverse their decision.

Radio Free Asia is a news service based in Washington, D.C., and funded by the U.S. government.

President Clinton told reporters Wednesday, "I think [the Chinese] made a mistake." He added, "It's ironic that they granted more visas to journalists than ever before," showing huge progress, but that China "dampened that progress" by reversing its decision to allow the Radio Free Asia reporters in.

The president said he was baffled as to why China was singling out the Radio Free Asia reporters.

All of this followed a flurry of diplomatic activity on the eve of the president's departure.

Through the U.S. embassy in Washington and the U.S. Ambassador to China, James Sasser, Mr. Clinton delivered strong objections to the Chinese Tuesday night, and asked China's Vice Foreign Minister Yang Wang to change the decision to freeze out the Radio Free Asia reporters. Overnight, the message came to the White House from China: The visas would not be issued.

At 7 a.m. Wednesday, the White House contacted the journalists involved in the dispute and told them Mr. Clinton would give them a personal interview just before he left the White House for China this morning to show White House support for the plight of the journalists.

In that interview, journalist Fung Xiaoming, who is Chinese, told me he talked with Mr. Clinton about China's practice of "jamming" or blocking Radio Free Asia broadcasts.

Afterwards, Xiaoming said, "I'm pretty sure [the president] will raise this issue" when he gets to China.

Another of the Radio Free Asia reporters, Arin Basu, told me they asked the president why he will not be meeting with any Chinese dissidents, or the families of students killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

President Clinton answered that he would be meeting with many different types of people in China, and has previously said he did not want to meet with dissidents for fear the Chinese government would take action against them when he left China.

When I asked the Radio Free Asia reporters why they thought China had singled them out, Basu told me that in the past China had accused Radio Free Asia of broadcasting repots unfairly attacking the Chinese government.

The flack over the journalists further complicates the already controversial trip to China for Mr. Clinton. Among other things, his critics say he should not be rewarding a nation with such a bad record on human rights with a personal visit - the first by a U.S. president since the Chinese government's violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square nine years ago.

Basu also said that President Clinton seemed "stressed" when the group interviewed him shortly before 11 a.m. Wednesday. Mr. Clinton told them, "It will be a difficult trip."

Written by CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson

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