This is no ordinary time, to borrow the line from former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt that historian Doris Kearns Goodwin made famous.
But that doesn’t mean we should give up on what makes us extraordinary.
In a democracy, decisions that affect the public ought to be made in public. And the public should always have the opportunity to question the authorities about those decisions.
As I observed in a column last month during Sunshine Week, that’s what gives democratic institutions their authority: If they are accountable to the people, they will be trusted by the people.
Keeping this virtuous circle unbroken has gotten a lot harder in the age of COVID-19.
This week, Missouri lawmakers are reconvening in Jefferson City under circumstances that would have been unimaginable a month ago.
But a nation that made the sacrifices necessary to save the world for democracy, had the ingenuity and stick-to-itiveness to put men on the moon and then managed to put more computer power than those astronauts had in their rockets into the pockets of just about every adolescent in the world really should not be daunted by difficulty.
This means you, Gov. Mike Parson.
For the last few weeks, the governor has been holding daily news briefings on Facebook Live, on the grounds that the technology offers him a way to keep communicating with the public at a safe social distance.
Fair enough, but as leaders of the Missouri Press Association and the Missouri Broadcasters Association pointed out in a letter to the governor last week, Parson’s choice of technology severely limits the ability of news outlets to obtain information for the public.
Reporters have to email questions ahead of time, to be read out by Parson’s communications director.
While my colleague Mark Horvit, who supervises the Missourian’s Jefferson City coverage, tells me he’s seen no indication that the governor’s staff is cherry-picking questions to leave out the hard ones, it still leaves journalists with no chance to ask probing follow-ups.
While the governor’s willingness to make himself available on a daily basis (including weekends) is admirable, it’s also — let’s face it — not a bad platform for a man seeking reelection. Especially when you can anticipate some questions and avoid others — the exact reasons we at the Missouri School of Journalism discourage our students from doing email interviews.
It amounts to a Plexiglas approach to democracy: seeming transparency that still provides public officials with a shield against the slings and arrows that sometimes go with true accountability.
Exhibit A: Parson’s announcement Friday that he would be issuing a statewide “stay-at-home” order in an effort to limit the COVID-19 outbreak.
Though billed as one of his Facebook “press briefings,” the press had absolutely zero to do with it. The governor merely made his announcement, embellished with justifications designed to deflect the criticisms of those who don’t like it as well as those of constituents who wonder why it took him so long.
There were no questions from reporters; any that came in over email ahead of time would likely have been irrelevant anyway, as no one knew ahead of time what the governor would be announcing.
As Missouri lawmakers, along with some journalists, return to the Capitol, it would be a good time for Parson to begin taking live questions again.
As the state’s news organizations note in their letter, there are ways and means for him to hold a news conference while observing social distancing.
If he — or some reporters — are uneasy about that, there are also technologies that would allow for real-time interactions between the governor and reporters online. Zoom, the videoconferencing platform now being used by the University of Missouri for online learning, allows students to question their professors live, if not in person.
There’s no reason the governor couldn’t use that or something similar — Google Hangouts, to name one alternative — to interact with the press.
Those of us fortunate enough to live in the United States of America enjoy (and, all too often, take for granted) the benefits of a democracy.
Those benefits include — to offer an example that springs to the top of mind in this era of COVID — strong, stable institutions we can rely on to safeguard public health and safety.
We can rely on those institutions to do their jobs, perhaps not always perfectly, but fairly and with some measure of competence, because when they screw up, they know they will be answerable: to critics of the political status quo or to pesky members of a free press.
Across the country and the world, free speech advocates are sounding the alarm about public leaders trying to use the COVID crisis as a way to avoid that kind of accountability.
In the United States, 144 organizations have signed a letter calling for state, local and tribal governments to maintain their commitment to open meetings and public transparency.
Overseas, the International Press Institute has highlighted the case of three Serbian journalists arrested for “spreading panic” with their reporting on the pandemic; Reporters Without Borders has mapped attacks on journalists over their reports on the virus in four continents.
That’s the kind of contagion we really want to avoid here.
You should be covering up your nose and your mouth for the next few weeks, America, but don’t cover up your eyes and ears.
Demand answers and demand accountability. It’s the only way to guarantee that our democracy emerges from this ordeal as strong as it was before.
Kathy Kiely is the Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism.