The nation has grown chaotic and wary. Uneasy is our new default.
We must accept that disagreements are inevitable and acknowledge perfect answers may be impossible to find. And in this absence of certainty, it would help if we could rely on integrity to be a dependable guide.
Which brings us to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
God bless him, he finds himself in an impossible job. This pandemic has no precedent in modern times, which means he is relying on counsel that is more speculative than exact. Does he listen to doctors or economists? Voices from rural counties or urban areas? Does he follow a path taken by the federal government or other states?
DeSantis is trying to find a balance so delicate that it may not even be attainable. So whether you have agreed or disagreed with the majority of his choices in the age of coronavirus, you should at least give him the courtesy of believing he is acting with your best interests in mind.
The decision to bar Times/Herald bureau reporter Mary Ellen Klas from a Saturday news conference to update the public on pandemic developments was selfish and inexcusable. The governor’s action shut out the state’s two largest newsrooms from asking questions, ostensibly because she had asked previously about social distancing in crowded news conferences.
The administration’s response was petty and cowardly — unbecoming of a man with DeSantis’ military background.
Understand, this is not a journalist’s whine about favoritism or payback. This is about your right to get answers from your governor. When elected officials begin censoring the news media, the potential for governmental abuses grows exponentially.
Unlike the pandemic itself, this is not a difficult call. It may not be a violation of statutes, but it flies in the face of Florida’s Sunshine Law. And the governor, who is an attorney and a stickler for adherence to the U.S. Constitution, knows better.
Politicians should not exclude credentialed media from a public news conference without a legitimate reason. And while the governor’s spokeswoman later said they limited attendance to ensure social distancing, other reporters were allowed to enter after Klas was denied.
So, you might ask, if other reporters were allowed in, was this really a big deal?
You better believe it. Playing fast and loose with journalistic access is meant to have a chilling effect on reporters. There’s an unspoken threat that if you ask tough questions or your media outlet reports unfavorable news, then you’re not going to get close to the governor.
And that chill extends beyond the newspapers that were banned. Other reporters then have to weigh the costs of asking tough questions versus the prospect of being excluded.
And do you know who suffers?
You do. At a time when residents are fearful of the virus and worried about their job security, it’s a little disconcerting that the governor’s office appears hellbent on avoiding questions from a reporter with more than 30 years of experience in the Capitol.
The implications are even worse. We are in a full-blown crisis. And the idea that the governor’s office is wasting energy on avoiding reporters and worrying about his press coverage does not inspire a whole lot of confidence in his ability to handle this pivotal moment in history.
Look, the relationship between elected officials and journalists is inherently contentious. Both sides understand that. Politicians and their handlers want the best spin possible, and reporters are hard-wired to probe and second-guess.
And I wouldn’t blame DeSantis if he was unhappy with some of the coverage of recent weeks. He’s facing difficult choices and that has led to some harsh criticisms around the state and the country. Depending on your point of view, maybe even unfair criticism.
But he fully understands that’s an occupational hazard when you’re one of the most powerful men in the nation.
And whether it was his decision alone or the choice of his handlers, DeSantis’ response fit neither the dignity of his office nor his career.