Gov. Gretchen Whitmer halts in-person press briefings on COVID-19

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — For the first time in nearly five months, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer held a press conference on COVID-19 Wednesday without members of the media physically in attendance.

The governor's administration announced this week that it would stop allowing journalists to attend the regular briefings in person to ask questions. Instead, the administration allowed reporters to participate only virtually and appeared to select individuals to ask Whitmer questions after they posted their questions in the video application.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the state during a speech in Lansing, Mich., Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020.

The move marked a reversal from practices that have been in place since the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Michigan on March 10 and since the virus peaked here in April.

"It's concerning," said Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association.

Before taking questions at Wednesday's press conference, Whitmer acknowledged that reporters were not physically in attendance but were watching over Zoom.

"We wanted to make sure we keep everyone safe as we adhere to the new rules about indoor gatherings across the state," the governor said.

Whitmer was apparently referring to an executive order issued last week that extended a 10-person limit for social gatherings statewide to the Upper Peninsula and Northern Lower Michigan. However, the governor's office has previously held in-person briefings in Lansing with the 10-person limit in effect.

In the spring, a pool of about three reporters was selected by Whitmer's team to ask questions in person at the governor's briefings when the more restrictive stay-at-home order was in place. In recent weeks, however, the governor has allowed a larger group of reporters into her office's press auditorium to participate in the briefings.

But Wednesday's briefing was the first since Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, announced Sunday that he tested positive for COVID-19. Whitmer's spokeswoman Tiffany Brown noted Barrett's positive test in a statement explaining the virtual event on Wednesday, saying "fellow senators, staff, and members of the media" had been potentially infected.

The governor's office made the decision "to take extra precautions this week," Brown said.

"Complying with the governor’s orders while protecting the health and safety of our team and the press corps is our top priority," she added.

Brown also denied that the Whitmer administration had decided which questions were asked at the briefing. Questions were asked in the order they appeared in the chat feature used to moderate the question and answer, she said.

In total, the governor took six questions over Zoom during Wednesday's briefing.

Asked about the situation, Ari Adler, who served as communications director for Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, said Snyder always took questions from reporters as they came in, even uncomfortable ones.

"Reporters represent the public. And if a reporter has a question, it is very likely that they are asking on behalf of their readers or viewers," Adler said. "Providing an answer to a reporter meant that you were providing an answer to thousands of people who probably had the same question."

Liz Boyd, who served as communications director for Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, said Whitmer has done a "spectacular job" and has been transparent by holding regular press briefings throughout the pandemic.

“Everything is happening by Zoom. So why not a press conference?” Boyd asked.