Editorial: Whitmer should face the press mask-to-mask

The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer further insulated herself from accountability by barring the press from physically attending her press conference this week.

Instead of having reporters in-person at her Wednesday briefing, the governor closed the door and asked the press corps to submit questions electronically, allowing her to pick the ones she wanted to answer and skip the ones she didn't.

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

Reporters were able to watch the conference remotely via Zoom, but couldn't ask follow-ups to the six questions Whitmer selected.

The governor's office says the move was is in line with her tightened executive order limiting attendance at indoor events, and stems from fears that members of the Lansing press corps may have been in contact with state Sen. Tom Barrett, who has tested positive for the virus.

How convenient for her. It's not clear whether this was a one-time situation, or whether it will be an ongoing policy. We hope the vocal cries of foul from the press corps will convince her this is not a good idea. 

The affront to transparency is obvious. The format allows the governor to control her interaction with the press and shields her from having to explain contradictory and inconsistent decisions.

At Wednesday's briefing, for example, reporters were told Whitmer would answer the questions in the order they appeared on the Zoom chat screen.

But she passed right over questions from a Detroit News reporter who asked the governor to explain the reasoning behind the decision to reopen Detroit's casinos while shutting down northern Michigan bars. It's a question a lot of folks in Michigan would like addressed in more detail.

As long as the governor is filtering the questions, the answer won't be forthcoming. 

From the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Whitmer has resisted accountability. Her initial press conferences were limited to three hand-picked pool reporters. Media members complained that those who asked tougher questions were excluded from the pool, setting up an environment in which reporters were rewarded for going easy on the governor.

Later, she expanded the number of press members allowed to attend the briefings to 12, and the spots were granted on a first-come basis, with masks and social distancing required. 

The Wednesday format is particularly troublesome because it came at at time when Whitmer is governing the state with very few checks on her authority.

She has manipulated ambiguous state laws regarding gubernatorial emergency powers to claim total control of state government and strip the Legislature of its oversight role.

That leaves the press as virtually the only watchdog of the governor's decision-making while the state of emergency is in place. And, unless stopped by the courts, she can unilaterally extend the emergency declaration for as long as she wants.

The best safeguard against such enormous unchecked power is an independent and robust press corps. Michigan is fortunate to have a tenacious group of Capitol reporters, who will continue to do their jobs no matter how difficult Whitmer tries to make it for them. Increasingly, they have been unable to do their jobs effectively.

Most importantly for the governor, she will find better acceptance of and compliance with her orders if she can withstand the questioning of reporters and explain the rationale, data and science that drive her decisions. The blatant disregard that even some in law enforcement have regarding her orders is founded upon questions about the logic and legitimacy that drive them.  

In the interest of government transparency — a value the governor professed to hold when she was running for the office — Whitmer should not repeat the restrictive press conference format and commit to answering questions from the media without screening them first. 

That willingness to explain and defend decisions comes with the job of being governor, and it's what she owes the people of Michigan.