We at The Palm Beach Post stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Miami Herald. The intentional exclusion of one journalist is a threat to all.
It’s an unspoken fact of life for government at all levels: If a problem is important to those in power, it gets done — and if it doesn’t matter much to them, it can simply be ignored.
>>>Related content: Coronavirus in Florida: Editorial: Fix the state budget to reflect the impact of coronavirus
Gov. Ron DeSantis has a lot on his desk right now, as the coronavirus attacks more Floridians every day and the state’s health-care system is increasingly burdened. And like practically every politician who’s ever lived, he thinks the proper role of the news media is to parrot whatever information the government gives out, and otherwise just stay out of the way.
>>>Related content: Coronavirus in Florida: Editorial: Palm Beach County leaders can’t wait for state, federal help
But an incident at the Capitol Saturday afternoon showed clearly that he is more concerned with controlling information in this crisis than communicating an urgent message that affects the health and economic climate of his state. He could blame it on a staff screw-up, if he has to, but DeSantis should simply apologize for the exclusion of reporter Mary Ellen Klas from his coronavirus briefing — which other journalists were invited to attend — and find a better space for holding all future briefings.
First of all, Mary Ellen Klas needs no defense here. The Miami Herald chief of the combined Herald/Tampa Bay Times bureau is one of the most experienced and respected reporters in town, covering six governors and earning some of the profession’s top honors.
The USA TODAY NETWORK has also been shut out and not been invited to the press conferences, which have been announced minutes before they began.
But all that’s beside the point.
We at The Northwest Florida Daily News, along with our sister papers in Florida, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Miami Herald. The intentional exclusion of one journalist is a threat to all.
>>>Related content: Coronavirus in Florida: Editorial: Governor, shut this state down
Even if it was a part-time college kid covering weekend festival parades for a small-town radio station, that journalist would have the same legal and ethical privilege and obligation to be in the Capitol. As a group, we might not live up to it every day and on every story, but the press has a duty to you — the readers and viewers — not to the people we cover or our own likes and dislikes.
Secondly, the Florida Society of News Editors responded to Klas’s exclusion with a letter to DeSantis, quite reasonably suggesting he find a bigger space — the Senate chamber, for instance — so everyone can stay several arms-lengths apart during those briefings. Additionally, the press conferences are already carried live on the Florida Channel and by mostly TV media, so it would be no great challenge to hook journalists up on Zoom, Microsoft Teams or some other interactive links, and let reporters all over Florida watch, listen and ask questions.
“Today’s purposeful exclusion of the Miami Herald’s bureau chief (from) your press conference was an alarming development,” the FSNE, which represents 49 news organizations, wrote to DeSantis. “That city is facing a grave crisis, which you well know, and it deserves representation at all of your press conferences.”
A couple days earlier, Klas had asked the governor’s office about “social distancing” for his briefings, which were moved from the state Emergency Operations Center to his Capitol conference room last week. That was the official reason given for her exclusion from the Saturday event.
Anyone who believes that probably thinks a big floppy bunny is going to hop through town two Sundays from now and leave candy eggs for the children. If her question about social distancing somehow justified her exclusion, why did the governor’s office warn a News Service of Florida reporter he, too, would be barred if he insisted that Klas should be let in?
It’s far more plausible to suspect the DeSantis staff was being petty and vindictive toward the Herald, which has been critical in editorials concerning the governor’s performance in this crisis.
Florida news organizations sometimes had to sue DeSantis’ predecessor, Rick Scott, over open meetings and public records. Almost all state and federal officials know dozens of little ways to favor one news agency over others, but the stakes now are a lot higher than simply settling scores.
We hope it won’t be necessary to take DeSantis, a lawyer, to court and impress on him the importance of treating all reporters the same. We hope that if he really wants to communicate with the public in a time of crisis, he’ll just get a bigger room and more live-streaming access so he and his top staff can take questions.
That’s important to us. It should be important to you. And if it’s important to him, it will get done.