Since early March, Pennsylvanians have been able to watch on the internet or on television as Gov. Tom Wolf answers questions about the state's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reporters aren’t the ones asking the questions, though.
The health department’s director of communications is.
There are no journalists in the room with Wolf. Instead, reporters submit their questions, in advance, via a form on the web.
There is no opportunity, in real time, for those journalists to follow up on Wolf’s answers. And the Wolf administration has the opportunity, if it chooses, to dodge the toughest questions for their boss.
At first glance, the governor seems to be trying to manage the media and, thus, the coverage of his administration’s response to the ongoing health and economic crisis.
“With all the technology available, the governor’s office still requires reporters submit questions that are then read by a state employee during press conferences, said David LaTorre, who served as press secretary for Republican Gov. Mark Schweiker.
“We’re told to trust that they aren’t being filtered,” said LaTorre.
But it is far more complicated for the 71-year-old Democratic governor, who has emphasized transparency as a top issue.
As of last Friday, Wolf had held 21 web-based press events on the pandemic.
He began doing them in the cramped media room at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency in Harrisburg, but switched to his home in Mount Wolf after reporters complained it was impossible to practice social distancing in the tight quarters.
He livestreamed a video from the reception room in the Governor’s Office last week to announce his plan to gradually re-open the state. Wolf did not invite reporters.
The frequency of news conferences supports, in a broad sense, Wolf’s claims of transparency. So does putting his health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, on air, sometimes on her own and sometimes with Wolf. The Wolf administration provided data showing TV views of the governor’s events averaged 5 million a day since late March and Facebook views totaled 260,000 on one day.
But, as Department of Health communications director April Hutcheson said, “This is new territory for all of us.”
Hutcheson is the aide who often recites the questions submitted by reporters to Wolf and Levine.
Asked if controversial questions are omitted, Hutcheson said, “I won’t do that. They are getting the hard questions.”
Hutcheson said she tries to ask questions in the order they were submitted by journalists.
Not having reporters in the room with the governor is a safety issue, she said. “I am not going to risk their health or yours,” Hutcheson said.
There’s a limited amount of time for follow-up questions, given the volume of questions from reporters across the state. “What we didn’t anticipate was the amount of questions coming in,” said Wolf press secretary Lindsay Kensinger. “Sometimes it’s 60.”
Hutcheson said she typically gets to ask about three-quarters of the questions on any given day. The remaining are forwarded to the press office for responses.
Kensinger said her goal is to be “as transparent and accessible as possible.”
Wolf’s approach to holding news conferences differs from how, say, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo deals with his daily briefings. Cuomo invites reporters to his events and allows them to ask questions. They stand 6 to 8 feet apart.
Governors are taking “a variety of approaches,” said James Nash, press secretary for the National Governor’s Association. “I believe most governors continue to hold press conferences in their offices or state capitols … sometimes with reporters present in person (but physically separated) and some, like Gov. (Gavin) Newsom in California, with reporters patched in by phone.”
A little more than a week ago, Wolf began holding news conferences by phone. As many as 85 reporters statewide dial in, Kensinger said. On a recent call, reporters were limited to one question each. Wolf has also done a handful of one-on-one phone interviews.
Follow-up questions may seem inconsequential to many citizens. But they can help push elected officials to clarify or expand their positions. They also allow reporters to challenge what may be canned, or scripted, answers.
“... When you give 60 reporters 20 minutes and say they can’t ask follow-ups — you have to question why,” said LaTorre, who handled media during the nationally televised Quecreek Mine rescue in 2002.
“Some may not see the problem, but it allows the governor to answer questions broadly without any fear of having to provide specifics or be challenged on his answer,“ LaTorre said. “Right now, those decisions have made him the most closed-off governor in our region.”
T.J. Rooney, a former state Democratic Party Chairman from Bethlehem, said, “If the governor and his press aides were hiding under a rock, I’d say Dave LaTorre is right.”
But he argues Wolf has been transparent. Rooney said he understands the importance of follow-ups, but he believes Wolf has struck a fair balance. “I don’t view it as a smack in the face to democracy,” Rooney said.
Vincent Carocci, who served as press secretary for Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey, credits Wolf for holding briefings almost every day. But, Carocci adds, “If you are not going to do a group gathering of the Harrisburg press corps, you need to keep it down to a manageable size so there’s a chance for follow ups.”
Wolf could take a cue from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. The Ohio Republican holds news conferences at the statehouse with reporters in a separate room with a video feed and microphone for the Q and A, said DeWine’s spokesman.