By: Karina Valdes
As social distancing was becoming the new normal around the country, news reporters were crowded in Governor Ron DeSantis’ office almost daily for press conferences.
“I made a request [to Governor DeSantis’ office] that they find a larger meeting room so that we could do social distancing and I also requested that they do what the mayors in other parts of the state have been doing, and that is just holding virtual press conferences,” said Mary Ellen Klas, capital bureau chief for the Miami Herald and co-bureau chief of the Tampa Bay Times.
Klas made headlines last week after being denied entry into Governor DeSantis’ press conference where he gave updates on Florida’s response to COVID-19. She recently spoke to students studying Media Relations about her experience after her initial request for social distancing was declined.
“I think it was because the TV stations wanted to have the live TV cameras and so the end result was, they never made any accommodation for us,” said Klas.
As the number of COVID-19 cases increased in Florida, and social distancing was still not being observed during Governor DeSantis’ press conferences, her editors wrote a letter pleading that the office follow CDC guidelines. That letter went unanswered.
“When I protested, the press secretary for the governor’s office said ‘Well, why don’t you just send us your questions in writing and we’ll have the governor address them’,” said Klas.
For about a week, she sent in her questions.
“It was increasingly clear to me that they had no intention of answering our questions,” said Klas.
She decided to attend the next press conference to ask her questions in person. As she arrived to the Capitol, she was stopped at the entrance.
“They opened the door and said ‘Mary Ellen, why are you here?’ and I said, ‘I’m here to cover the press conference’ and their response was, ‘Well, we’re not so sure. We’ll get back to you’,” said Klas.
When the person came back, Klas was told she would not be allowed inside.
“So they closed the door on me and came back and said, ‘Well, you’re not going to be allowed in. You asked for social distancing and we are honoring your request’,” said Klas.
UM student Kylea Henseler asked Klas if she feels that politicians denying access to the press is a growing trend.
“Oh gosh, I hope it’s not a trend,” said Klas. “There’s first amendment law that requires you not interfere with people trying to ask questions of government,” said Klas.
But, she added that within the last 20 years there has been an increase in restrictions placed on the first amendment as it relates to freedom of the press.
“I hope that this governor isn’t doing that. I think that they just didn’t think it through,” said Klas.
She shared with the students that it did seem that Governor DeSantis’ office was beginning to practice social distancing by recently holding a press conference in a large room, but the following day he held another conference in his office crowded with people.
“I hope that there is no member of the press corps that gets sick, but if one of them does that means that all of us will be at a disadvantage and will have to be in quarantine, which will inhibit our ability to get our job done,” said Klas.
According to Klas, various organizations including the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote letters to the governor advocating for social distancing during press conferences. Across the country, various news outlets have also spoken out against the practice of holding press conferences in small spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To view the entire conversation with Klas, please visit https://vimeo.com/405175493.