The Scott administration recently banned Steve Merrill from its weekly coronavirus press conferences.

Merrill hosts a show called “It’s News To Us,” on NEK-TV. He is known to ask some pretty unconventional, and often cringe-worthy, questions.

One crossed the line for Scott and his staff.

“Governor, you’d mentioned set-asides for the BIPOC community… What with no tribal — federal tribal recognition and, you know, reservations or anything like that, how would one qualify as indigenous?” Merrill said. “Do we use the Elizabeth Warren standard with high cheekbones or did you just take people’s word for it?”

That prompted Scott’s staff to take a closer look at Merrill’s show. Their takeaway was that Merrill doesn’t host a news show at all. They concluded that he hosts an “entertainment” program with little, if any, news reporting. As such, he would no longer be welcome to question the Governor, as a member of the news media, during his live conferences.

Merrill said the decision would have a “chilling effect” on media and appealed the decision to Jason Gibbs, the Governor’s Chief of Staff.

You can read Gibbs’ reasoned response to Merrill below. He says, and we wholeheartedly agree, that’s it’s dangerous and imperfect for government to decide what qualifies as journalism. But he argues somebody has to.

“Allowing the lines between hobby entertainment, political satire, partisan and/or ideological propaganda and bona fide journalism to continue to erode is bad for the integrity of the profession of journalism, bad for democracy, and bad for the American Republic…” Gibbs writes. “…As noted above, it is my view that real journalism exists to provide accurate and reliable information to the citizenry, and this information is essential to the functioning of a free society.”

He adds, “The lines between journalism, entertainment and partisan or ideological propaganda should be clear.”

Gibbs then implores the media to police itself.

“These lines ensure that the professional principles and standards of journalism are upheld,” he tells Merrill. “More importantly, they ensure that citizens have an opportunity, and clear tools, to distinguish journalism from entertainment and, perhaps most importantly, from divisive, oppressive and deceitful partisan and/or ideological propaganda.”

In simpler times we would have thanked the Governor for the access he’s giving during this awful pandemic. We’d readily agree that Merrill makes little effort to appear serious and then we’d respectfully disagree with the Governor, and defend Merrill’s right to be at the table.

After all, it’s a slippery slope when the government gets to decide who is a journalist. Obama once banned Fox News and Trump would have banned everyone other than Newsmax and One America. Typically when politicians start playing that game, journalists have the brains to rally in opposition. If they can ban one, they can eventually ban us all.

Gibbs is right the stakes are high. Americans, for instance, don’t typically storm the nation’s Capitol when their candidate loses a free and fair election. It’s only when the media ecosystem goes haywire and feeds vulnerable people exclusively with unfettered and verifiably false conspiracy narratives.

But Merrill’s little-noticed public-access show isn’t to blame for that. Nor was it an abdication by legacy media to bifurcate news from opinion. We’ve always done that.

The sacred wall between the newsroom and commentators gets blurrier on 24-hour news channels. Last year, for instance, a federal court tossed a defamation suit against Tucker Carlson because, Fox News attorneys argued, and a Judge agreed, that nobody in their right mind should confuse anything Carlson says as fact.

Tell that to the people now facing criminal charges for insurrection.

We’d agree with Gibbs that these networks profit by purposefully muddying the water, but not even they are to blame for the chaos.

For that, we think the social media rage machines are most culpable. They get paid billions to feed toxic antagonism to unwitting consumers and to purposely confuse users over information. In fact, no matter how conscientious we are, real news stands no chance against viral lies when omnipresent algorithms reward the latter.

Banning Steve Merrill isn’t going to do anything to plug the intense torrent of that spew.

As hard as it is to defend Merrill, we think it’s a lesser evil to let someone be obnoxious than it is to ban people whom the government finds distasteful. Protection for the minority, after all, is the crux of Constitutional protections.

So we think Gibbs is right about the importance of journalism and wrong in his prescription.

Ironically, we imagine Merrill’s program was more viewed in the past two weeks than ever before in its history. If he was smart, he would have used all the free publicity to grow his audience.

——-

Letter to Steve Merrill from Phil Scott’s Chief of Staff, Jason Gibbs:

Dear Mr. Merrill,

This email is in response to your February 4th appeal of the determination that the content you produce for NEKTV-Newport is hobby entertainment, not journalism. Please know, this decision was made with much consideration, deliberation and reflection — and with great respect and appreciation for the role of a free press, and journalism, in our republic.

BACKGROUND

As you observed in your appeal, for months the office simply took your word as fact. Generally speaking, we believe it is best left to journalists to define what is, and what is not, journalism. In this regard, I agree with your assertion that government(s) should avoid doing this to the greatest extent possible. However, after complaints and objections, a review of your show led Executive Office staff to conclude that it is, at best, entertainment — not news. At that point, in the absence of clearly defined standards or principles that could be applied by the profession itself, the staff felt it had an obligation to draw a line.

In making this determination, and in review of your appeal, the Executive Office sought and received formal and informal input from journalists, the associations that represent them, other public access stations and every day Vermonters. In one case, a Vermonter reached out to express support for reinstating your credentials. The rest of the feedback supported the initial decision. Of particular note, while one professional association chose to remain neutral, another wrote to express its support for the decision. Their concerns centered on the potential for your participation to undermine confidence in bona fide broadcast journalism.

Speaking frankly, it is my opinion the profession of journalism, as an essential and independent component of our system of self-governance, has an increasingly urgent need – and an obligation – to more clearly define what meets the principles of a profession all citizens rely on to ensure the full functioning of our free and democratic republic.

Here’s why:

Allowing the lines between hobby entertainment, political satire, partisan and/or ideological propaganda and bona fide journalism to continue to erode is bad for the integrity of the profession of journalism, bad for democracy, and bad for the American Republic.

This is not to say that bona fide news, and the journalists that report the news, cannot be entertaining. It is to say, however, that there is a bright line between real journalism and what’s entertainment, and entertainment or propaganda purposely disguised as news.

As noted above, it is my view that real journalism exists to provide accurate and reliable information to the citizenry, and this information is essential to the functioning of a free society.

The lines between journalism, entertainment and partisan or ideological propaganda should be clear.

Even accepting that journalists bring their own bias to interpretation of events and news – and that reporting and editorialization can also be entertaining – there must be lines drawn between journalism, entertainment and partisan or ideological propaganda. These lines ensure that the professional principles and standards of journalism are upheld. More importantly, they ensure that citizens have an opportunity, and clear tools, to distinguish journalism from entertainment and, perhaps most importantly, from divisive, oppressive and deceitful partisan and/or ideological propaganda.

Again, I acknowledge that journalists should accept the responsibility of defining and defending the principles, standards and ethics of their own profession. This should not be the role of the government. Nevertheless, under the current circumstances – and as a citizen who relies on journalism to fulfill my civic duty — I feel capable of (but admittedly a little uncomfortable) making this determination. My preference would be for journalists themselves to more clearly define and enforce such standards.

These lines can be drawn without impacting constitutional rights.

Significant consideration was also given to concerns related to the freedoms of speech and of the press. I have concluded that there is no impact on your first amendment rights as an individual, or on the freedoms of the press. As you’ve demonstrated in the days since the decision, not participating in the Q&A has had no negative impact on the production of your show. Nothing in this decision limits or censors your freedom of speech or ability to publish or broadcast it. As you have demonstrated in the continued production of your program, these lines can easily be drawn without limiting your constitutionally protected rights.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, among other core principles, journalism seeks to keep factual information in an accurate proportion. Entertainment exaggerates, inflates or diminishes fact for affect. Journalism makes an extra effort to include important context and details. Entertainment can choose to leave out important details. Journalism avoids, or preferably seeks to break, stereotyping. Entertainment leverages them for affect.

With all of this in mind, I agree with the decision of the staff: your program is, at best, a form of entertainment. It is not journalism. As such, production of your current programming on NEKTV-Newport does not entitle you to participate in the Q&A portion of the Governor’s twice-weekly media briefings, which is reserved for journalists who are reporting the news. As with any other constituent, there are many other ways for you to access public information and officials. For example, we would be happy to facilitate answers to any questions you have for state government. Contact points for our constituent services can be found here: https://governor.vermont.gov/contact

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