Gov. Mike Parson’s “virtual press briefings” — held every day but Sunday — are not legitimate news conferences, though they should be.
The format the governor is using for briefings during the COVID-19 pandemic makes it difficult for journalists to do the vital job of informing the public fully and in depth. Unlike news conferences held by other governors and even the president, these events are staged without journalists actually being present. Instead, with a sign-language interpreter nearby, the governor and whatever other officials or experts the governor calls address the camera in turn from a lectern while maintaining their spacing. Needed support staff are likely outside the video frame operating the camera, sound, etc. The format is ostensibly to protect against transmission of COVID-19, but has the effect of diminishing the transparency of our state government and increasing the likelihood of missing, incomplete or inaccurate information being relayed to the public.
The rules for these briefings require that all questions for the governor be submitted at least an hour in advance of the briefing. This guarantees the questions are never responsive to the information actually provided during the briefing, giving no opportunity for journalists to ask the governor to clarify or expand on a point or to challenge inaccuracies. Furthermore, the questions submitted — which are read aloud during the briefing — can be edited in ways that defeat the questioner’s intent, journalists can ask no followup questions to any response and the topics Parson and his handlers do not wish to address can be blithely ignored.
The argument that these measures are essential for safety during the pandemic is specious. The goal of keeping the governor, his staff and journalists safe can be achieved without excluding questions that actually address the content of the briefing. Journalists could be present with precautions such as temperature screening, masks and appropriate distancing. Or questions could be asked by having journalists participate within a group online video conference format. The governor announced Thursday that he will be available to journalists after the news briefing today while following some of these precautions. That is a step in the right direction.
Information is essential during this dangerous and challenging time. We rely on the governor for leadership, open communication and accountability during the pandemic. The governor’s briefings held every day but Sunday would be more effective if they were responsive in real time to journalists seeking to inform the public. The public needs legitimate news conferences, not managed, scripted dog-and-pony shows.
News briefings can be made safe without locking journalists out of the room.