This column is prompted by a simple question asked of the governor at one of his news conferences.
Missouri had reached a peak level of COVID-19 infections.
That record was set after Missouri Gov. Mike Parson relaxed state restrictions that were designed to reduce virus transmission.
It led to a simple question to the governor: “Do you feel any personal responsibility for the people who have been infected and don’t recover after you chose to reopen the state?”
The governor denied feeling responsible. But in a tactic used by President Donald Trump, Parson attacked the reporter.
“I don’t even know even where you come up with that question of personal responsibility as governor of the state of Missouri when you’re talking about a virus. You know, that’s no different than the flu virus or do I feel guilty because we have car accidents and people die every day. No I don’t feel guilty about that.”
But COVID-19 is something far more serious than the typical seasonal flu. And, highway safety is part of his administration’s responsibilities, including promotion of seat belt use. To be candid, I would have phrased the question differently, asking “was it a mistake to open so early or not scale back when infection rates began to increase.”
But the reporter’s question had a legitimate foundation.
As some states have demonstrated, not rushing to re-open business made a difference. And some states restored restrictions after infection rates rose.
Besides denying responsibility for COVID-19 infection rates, Parson then engaged in a deflection by badgering the reporter about her personal responsibility.
“I could ask the same thing for the media. Maybe you don’t do a good-enough job really telling the people the facts. Do you feel responsible for that…do you feel responsible if you say things that people don’t agree with or things that might harm somebody?”
I confess, that as a former journalism faculty member, I was upset listening to his hostile response to a younger colleague. However, I was impressed by her journalistic courage pursuing the question which embodied a number of issues facing the administration:
Given the horrific pictures of jammed crowds at Lake of the Ozarks, is there more the state could do to restrict infection-spreading gatherings?
Should the order restricting crowds at restaurants and other businesses be restored?
Why does the governor refuse to wear a face mask when so many health experts argue that face masks are an important step to reduce the spread of COVID-19?
Would wearing a face mask be a demonstration for the public?
The harshness of Parson’s response surprised me. I’ve always found him to be a polite and respectful person. It made me wonder if his response reflected his frustrations, which I fully understand.
This disease has wrecked the economy in the months before Parson faces re-election. Without a vaccine or guaranteed cure for COVID-19, there are no easy answers on how to balance economic recovery with health protection.
Finally, I’m sure there are many Missourians upset by the Parson administration’s initial restrictions.
To the governor’s credit, he did answer some of these issues in a subsequent news conference. But humiliating a reporter is not an answer.
As for Parson’s question to the reporter, journalists always feel responsible to assure accurate stories with enough depth and context as possible. Frequently, we do wish we had more time and space for our stories.
And, yes, journalists make mistakes. I have. Journalism is a pursuit of humans who are not perfect. But we admit our mistakes, promptly correct them and try to learn from our errors to avoid a repetition.
For reporters relatively new to the intimidating environment of the statehouse, I’d urge the governor to seek to inspire not badger or humiliate.
That’s what governors like Warren Hearnes and Kit Bond did when I began covering the statehouse, despite my reputation for blunt and aggressive questions — like the perfectly legitimate question asked of Parson that prompted his outburst.
(Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes).