One Benefit Of COVID Crisis: Vermont's Local Media Gain Frequent Access To Governor
The last seven weeks have transformed Phil Scott’s job. In addition to managing an unprecedented health and economic crisis, the soft-spoken governor has become Vermont's communicator-in-chief.
Vermont governors have traditionally held weekly news conferences. But those were often in Montpelier, lasted only half an hour or so, and were usually covered by just the Statehouse press corps.
But now, three times a week, for up to two hours at a time, Scott and his team field dozens of questions from reporters all over Vermont. On Monday, 26 reporters waited on a phone queue to ask a question.
Like everything else in the COVID world, most of the reporters now are physically distant — separated by a cell signal or phone line from the newsmakers of the day.
Finding the unmute button seems to be a challenge for these seasoned professionals: “Can you hear me now?” is often the most frequent question for the state’s top elected officer.
What usually follows are updates from the governor on his emergency orders, plus the latest from Health Commissioner Mark Levine and other cabinet members on COVID cases and the state’s response.
Questions about unemployment claims have dominated several news conferences as thousands of Vermonters waited days or weeks to get through on the phone to file a claim. As the public frustration grew, Scott was seen managing the crisis in real time.
Scott often turns to Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington, the man in the hot seat as the state tries to ease the huge backlog in claims. But he also didn’t shy from taking personal responsibility.
"I would also like to just add that these aren’t excuses, they’re just reasons," he said at one news conference after Harrington gave a lengthy answer. "We know we need to do better. We’re looking for every opportunity to do that."
"Vermonters want to know if anyone in their town has it. Local, local, local. They want to know about the tests in their towns." — Mike Donoghue, The Islander newspaper
Unlike gubernatorial news conferences in pre-COVID public life, these marathon sessions feature reporters from smaller outlets like the County Courier in Enosburg Falls, the Barton Chronicle or the Bennington Banner. They often bring uniquely local questions and concerns: What about high school graduation ceremonies? What’s happening with driver’s ed programs? And, frequently, how many COVID-19 cases are in my community?
Mike Donoghue, a veteran journalist and former reporter for the Burlington Free Press now works for The Islander newspaper in Grand Isle County. He’s hammered officials for data on local cases.
“The Islander continues to get inquiries from readers not only in the islands, but readers in Colchester, Milton, into Franklin County. They want to know about their individual towns,” Donoghue said. “Vermonters want to know if anyone in their town has it. Local, local, local. They want to know about the tests in their towns.”
Scott’s go-to medical expert, Health Commissioner Levine, is always at the news conferences. He dispenses with parochial questions like this in a clinical and unsentimental tone.
“I would think that any Vermonter, no matter what town they live in, would be foolish to think that there was not a case in their town,” he told Donoghue.
But after Donoghue kept pressing, the Health Department produced a map that tracks COVID numbers town-by-town instead of just by county.
"Having the call-in now three times a week, it gives us access and obviously through us, access for our readers that we wouldn't have normally had." — Greg Lamoureux, County Courier editor and publisher
Wilson Ring, Associated Press correspondent in Montpelier, has covered state government for decades. He said these are unprecedented times for both reporters and state officials.
“I’ve been quite impressed how the governor and all the assembled experts he has are willing to spend two hours talking to the reporters, answering follow-up questions,” Ring said.
Greg Lamoureux is editor, publisher and chief correspondent for the County Courier in Enosburg Falls. He said the briefings allow him to ask the governor what the paper hears from readers in Franklin County. They're often questions that Montpelier-based journalists may not think of.
“For instance, last week we were asking the governor about some perspectives of local farmers,” he said.
The farmers wanted to know if there was such a glut of milk that they were forced to dump it, why local stores had at the same time restricted milk sales to two gallons per customer.
“Having the call-in now three times a week, it gives us access and obviously through us, access for our readers that we wouldn't have normally had,” Lamoureux said.
"They [reporters] can't go out and get the information that they need. So they're possibly relying a lot more on the information being provided to them." — Traci Griffith, St. Michael's College journalism professor
Many governors around the country are holding similar briefings, but often not as frequently as Scott. Traci Griffith, associate professor of journalism at St. Michaels College, said Scott’s briefings — carried live on WCAX-TV and VPR as well as Orca Media — offer Vermonters direct, unfiltered insight into the governor’s response to the crisis.
“You’re not socializing. You’re not interacting with many people outside your immediate family. So these news conferences have kind of been the way in which people are getting access to accurate information, and finding out what’s happening right there in their own communities,” Griffith said. “And that’s significant. That’s important.”
Griffith gives Scott high marks for transparency and talking directly to Vermonters. But she said the normal dynamic between a probing press corps and a government it tries to hold accountable has shifted.
“They're definitely some situations where maybe the information isn’t entirely forthcoming, or it’s manipulated in some way, you know the numbers, the testing, etc.,” she said. “And so, you know, it’s up to the members of the media, to kind of dig.”
But she said that role can be a challenge with one side controlling the data and the narrative and many reporters stuck in home offices.
“They [reporters] can’t go out and get the information that they need,” she said. “So they’re possibly relying a lot more on the information being provided to them.”
The governor's press secretary Rebecca Kelley says the briefings will continue on their three times a week schedule for as long as the governor and his staff think they are necessary.
She added that when times return to normal, the governor will also likely continue to make the news conferences available by a phone link to local reporters around the state.