By Guy Page
Northeast Kingdom TV news producer Steve Merrill was banned last week from asking questions at Gov. Phil Scott’s twice-weekly press conference.
As listeners to Gov. Scott’s press conferences know, public access station NEKTV producer Steve Merrill’s questions – “first one for the governor, and then one for the commissioner, if I may” – often skeptically skewered two sacred cows: Black Lives Matter and the state’s efforts to stop Covid-19. Gov. Phil Scott and Communications Director Rebecca Kelley both insist he wasn’t banned from future news conferences for the content of his questions, but for the character of his programming. It was, they said, not news, but entertainment.
It’s true, Merrill went to great lengths to entertain. He often wore a tri-corner Revolutionary War style hat, and (as seen on VT Digger) sometimes sported favored Viking horns.
On the other hand, Merrill was reporting the Northeast Kingdom’s Stenger-Quiros fraud story long before the rest of the Vermont and national media caught on. So what is he – an entertainer who uses the news, or a newsman fanatical about the First Commandment of Journalism: “Thou Shalt Not Bore”? Gov. Scott clearly believes the former. He told Vermont Daily at last Friday’s press conference, even if popular mock-newscaster Steven Colbert wanted to join the call, he wouldn’t be admitted. Serious journalists only need apply.
What actually happened, here? Was this censorship of a reporter asking uncomfortable questions, or an administration insisting on maintaining high journalistic standards. Below is the back-and-forth between Kelley, Merrill, and Scott Chief of Staff Jason Gibbs. You be the judge.
On February 3, Kelley emailed Merrill:
“I am alerting you to a letter (attached) we are sending to NEK-TV momentarily. The letter details our concern, backed by outreach from constituents to our office, with your insensitive comment on indigenous people yesterday, which many feel is a pattern. We have long held the position that we, as state government, should not dictate who qualifies as a member of the press when they are representing a news organization, which is why we are seeking the station’s guidance in advance of Friday’s press briefing.”
The attached letter addressed to NEK-TV station director Tod Pronto said:
I am writing to inform you that our office has received expressions of sincere concern from numerous Vermonters in response to an offensive question at yesterday’s Scott Administration coronavirus media briefing from NEK-TV reporter Steve Merrill. The Governor shares these concerns.
Mr. Merrill asked the Governor the following question:
Governor, you’ve mentioned set asides for the BIPOC community and I’ve wondered about Indigenous peoples – what with no federal tribal recognition and, you know, reservations or anything like that – how would one qualify as Indigenous? Do you feel Elizabeth Warren’s standard with high cheekbones, or do you just take peoples’ word for it?
Considering the long-overdue national reckoning on systemic racism happening in America, and our renewed efforts to address bias in our state and nation, we are compelled to reach out to you. This is not the first time our office has received messages from concerned Vermonters about perceived racist comments/questions in these briefings from Mr. Merrill.
Our office firmly believes in the fundamental necessity of a free press, enshrined in our Constitution, and does not believe the government should dictate who qualifies as a member of the press when they are representing a news organization like yours. As Mr. Merrill is representing your station, we are requesting feedback from you on how we might proceed to address the concerns of many Vermonters. We hope to hear back from you by tomorrow so we can plan for Friday’s media briefing.
Director of Communications
In response, Merrill says he sent Kelley this May 3, 2012 CBS news story in which Sen. Elizabeth Warren herself said her grandfather “had high cheek bones like all of the Indians do” in order to substantiate her claim to native American heritage: “I still have a picture on my mantle and it is a picture my mother had before that – a picture of my grandfather. And my Aunt Bea has walked by that picture at least a 1,000 times remarked that he – her father, my Papaw –. Because that is how she saw it and your mother got those same great cheek bones and I didn’t.”
In a follow-up February 4 email, Kelley introduced the “entertainment” disqualifier.
Dear Steve (cc: Tod),
Putting the concern raised yesterday aside, upon review of your show, we have determined you are not using these briefings – or your questions at the briefings – to produce a bona fide news report but instead for a hobby entertainment program. We had not previously reviewed your program, as we were taking you at your word that you were producing a news program. Our review shows that is not the case and your show is clearly not a news program.
While, again, we are not in the business of determining who is or is not “press,” we can limit participation in the briefing Q&A to those joining for the purposes of news reporting for a news program or news article. As you are not creating a news report for a news program or article, we will not be admitting you to the COVID press briefing journalist queue moving forward. We will apply this standard in the same way to all others in the queue or who seek future participation.
The briefings are publicly available for viewing, and you are of course free to reach out to communication directors across state government to pose questions, but the Q&A during the Administration’s COVID press briefings is for journalists asking questions for bona fide news reporting.
You can also appeal this decision to the Governor’s Chief of Staff Jason Gibbs who you can reach at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Office of Governor Phil Scott | State of Vermont
And appeal to Gibbs, he did, in this February 4 email:
Dear Mr Gibbs—
I’m writing to appeal Rebecca Kelly’s decision to yank my credentials, as, by her determination, my news show at NEKTV—Newport is somehow “hobby entertainment” even though Dr. Levine has commented things to me like “well, you’ve really done your homework here” and similar “bona fide” scientific & research on my part. We have had many messages from viewers about my questions and the fact that NO other press members have brought up subject matter that I take HOURS and hours researching about the biology & virology of this pandemic and the decisions based on “science & data”.
In her prior letter to me and the NEKTV station manager she mentioned some “perceived racist comments & questions” after I directly quoted a (now sitting) US Senator, Elizabeth Warren, in her OWN words, from her campaign in 2012, how can THIS be remotely “racist”?
We have been producing & airing a “Bona Fide” NEWS program since September 2009 and we were the FIRST to question the EB-5 program and the bogus promises made by local, state, & federal politicians, WE were the first news program to notify the NEK that “AnC-Bio” was being run out of a corner office of a sports betting firm in Seoul, Korea and had NO stockholders, price to earnings ratio, nothing, all the while ALL the other “Bona Fide” news organizations were being wowed by Bill Stenger and all his “artists renderings” of the GREAT things coming to the NEK. And HOW did I get this information? A quick search of business sites on the internet, and our “hobby entertainment” program was (then) ridiculed as some “local nay-sayers” by Stenger & Quiros. Just HOW is THAT not “news”?
I am unsure just how many of my “shows” were viewed to make this determination, but who determines the freedom of the press these days? If my show WAS “hobby entertainment” then WHY would I gather info from the likes of the daily BFP, local sources, internet sources, scientific journals, virology & immunology journals, be commended by Dr. Levine for “doing my homework”, slog through ALL kinds of inclement weather to get to the TV studio every wednesday to bring this information to the viewing public for our whole coverage area up here in the NEK every WEEK for the past ELEVEN YEARS?
The fact that Ms. Kelly may not like my INTERPRETATION of the news and motives of the newsmakers does NOT make my show “hobby entertainment”, it IS “news”, it IS presented to our viewers, it IS shown weekly through cable subscriptions to some SEVENTEEN cities/towns in the NEK, and I can count on one hand how many weekly shows I have NOT been able to do, ALL produced in studio w/the station’s engineer who (sometimes) comments himself as an “every mans” perspective. This is NOT “hobby entertainment” & I’ve field produced & interviewed folks like Peter Shumlin, Vince Illuzzi, Dave (now Christine) Hallquist (3X), enviro-writer & speaker Derek Jensen, Troy & N.Troy Selectmen/Trustee meetings, and many others for the “news” at NEKTV, THIS is how the “news” is done on cable-access TV, a Community Producer begins by signing out equipment & doing the hard work of filming & producing the local “news” and since 2009 I HAVE been doing a REAL news program, w/REAL “news”, and the fact that Ms. Kelly considers it “hobby entertainment” does NOT unmake it “news”, she uses the word “we” a lot in her denial of credentials, just exactly WHO are the “we” she refers to?
I feel this is an attempt to stifle the freedom of the press, how can others like GNAT—TV, Orca Media, and other CABLE producers be credentialed and NEKTV denied because Ms. Kelly and her “we”, all unnamed of course, be the judge & jury of WHO is considered the “press”? I put in a LOT of work to find the “data & science” to ask the questions, some may be tough to answer, but to deny my press credentials after using ONE comment made by a US Senator seems to have angered Ms. Kelly and her “we”, therefore I am appealing this decision wholeheartedly.
Sincerely, Steve Merrill, Producer, NEKTV-Newport
Vermont Daily has no record of a response by Gibbs. However, the following day Gov. Scott emphasized (in response to Vermont Daily’s press conference question) that Merrill was dropped because he was primarily an entertainer, and not a serious journalist. He wasn’t on today’s call, either.
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Categories: Governor's Covid Press Conference