State and regional news groups slam Raimondo for dodging questions as pandemic continues

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Several groups including the Rhode Island Broadcasters Association have penned letters to Gov. Gina Raimondo, imploring her to step back into the public eye and answer reporters’ questions.

Raimondo, who was at the podium on a daily basis during the pandemic’s initial surge, has made one public appearance since Dec. 22 and she refused to answer any questions from reporters. More than 350 Rhode Islanders with COVID-19 have died since the last time she answered questions publicly.

The silence has come in the wake of President Joe Biden picking her as his U.S. commerce secretary, which pending U.S. Senate confirmation means she will move onto Washington, D.C., and leave Lt. Gov. Dan McKee to take over the state’s COVID-19 response.

But until that happens, most likely sometime next month, Raimondo has promised to continue to lead the state, which has drawn sharp criticism from news associations because she has simultaneously dodged all questions from the public.

Raimondo has said the R.I. Department of Health will be leading the now weekly COVID-19 news briefings moving forward, with the next one scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday.

Since last week’s briefing, the Rhode Island Broadcasters Association (RIBA), Rhode Island Press Association (RIPA), New England Newspaper & Press Association (NENPA), and New England First Amendment Coalition (NFEAC) wrote letters to Raimondo, calling on her to resume the briefings and stop avoiding questions.

Read the full letters below.

The Broadcasters Association, which represents TV and radio stations across the state — including WPRI 12 — said while they understand Raimondo can’t speak at length about the nomination process, the group expects her to keep up leadership during the pandemic.

“Rhode Islanders look to you, listen and trust your answers to questions many times driven from the viewers and listeners themselves,” RIBA wrote. “Your initiation of kid’s zooms, fireside chats and weekly press conferences have been successful in comforting those in fear and educating those who may have been skeptical. To put another face at the podium to address answers from the media will not carry the same trustworthiness and comfort as you, yourself answering to the camera.”

Raimondo spokesperson Audrey Lucas released a statement Wednesday saying the governor is focused on the transition process and Rhode Islanders will next hear from her during her final State of the State speech on Feb. 3.

“During this time of transition, Dr. Alexander-Scott and her team at the Department of Health will continue to hold press briefings multiple times each week on our state’s COVID-19 response and vaccine rollout,” Lucas said. “Lieutenant Governor McKee will continue providing updates on the transition. Governor Raimondo will address Rhode Islanders in her State of the State address on February 3. She is focused on ensuring a smooth transition and continuing to manage the public health response.”

In response to that statement, RIPA called it “extremely troubling” that there’s no indication Raimondo will answer any questions publicly in her remaining time as governor, even as the pandemic continues and Rhode Islanders live under the executive orders she has enacted.”

“You, as governor, promised full and complete transparency to the public throughout this health crisis,” wrote the group, which represents newspapers across the state. “That includes answering questions from the public in a public forum, such as press conferences, and the pandemic did not stop in Rhode Island on Dec. 22.”

“‘No comment’ is not applicable with COVID-19 still posing deadly consequences to the community at large,” RIPA added.

The sentiment was echoed in a letter from the NEFAC and NENPA, which both represent first amendment groups and newspapers across New England.

“While your nomination to President-Elect Biden’s Cabinet is a great honor that carries with
it certain responsibilities, these must not be prioritized over your duties as governor. Making
yourself available for questioning by journalists — who serve as a proxy to the public — is one of
those duties,” NEFAC and NENPA wrote.

Read the full letters to Raimondo:

Rhode Island Broadcasters Association

Dear Governor Raimondo,

We are writing today in unity to request a response on your position of addressing questions from the television and radio station media at this Thursday’s Press Conference and beyond. We have enjoyed a strong working relationship with you, having consistently provided the time on our airwaves to your administration in order to keep our state well informed. It’s been a good working relationship that has worked well. And we look forward to continuing to do the same throughout your term as Governor.

You have become the face of the State of Rhode Island’s response to Covid-19. Rhode Islanders look to you, listen and trust your answers to questions many times driven from the viewers and listeners themselves. Your initiation of kid’s zooms, fireside chats and weekly press conferences have been successful in comforting those in fear and educating those who may have been skeptical. To put another face at the podium to address answers from the media will not carry the same trustworthiness and comfort as you, yourself answering to the camera.

This week Rhode Island will look to hear the evolving plan on deployment of vaccines and how to safeguard Rhode Island from the new variant now confirmed to be in Massachusetts. There will be new questions from these developments that will be best fit with your attentiveness, navigating us forward.

We respectively understand the position you are in based on historical nomination processes. With that said, these are very different times and very different circumstance. With the pandemic and the pandemic planning at possibly its most critical juncture, our ask is “will you continue to follow the format of the Press Conference, staying at the podium to address questions in regards to the Pandemic issues?” History shows each potential Cabinet nominee has been tasked with instructions to not answer questions prior to the nomination process, but these times are unprecedented and in need of leadership’s voice. Rhode Island looks to its Governor to keep us on course and lead us. That task includes answering Rhode Island’s questions by staying at the podium as in past press conferences.

Rhode Island Broadcasters Association

Rhode Island Press Association

Dear Gov. Raimondo,

We, the Rhode Island Press Association, a nonprofit that supports and advocates for local print journalism and open government, come to you sharing our collective concern about you not answering questions from news reporters during the Jan. 13 COVID-19 press conference at The Vets, both inside and outside the facility.

It was the first time since Dec. 22, nearly a month ago, that you addressed Rhode Islanders in Rhode Island about the pandemic and since you were named a nominee as commerce secretary for President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet. But outside of a brief statement, the lone response the public – including news reporters – got from you Jan. 13 was a wave as you closed the passenger door in your SUV and left The Vets.

While you have publicly stated that you plan to remain as Rhode Island’s governor until, and if, the U.S. Senate confirms you as the new commerce secretary, that process could take weeks or even months. Your office has informed the media that you will be “focused on ensuring a smooth transition and continuing to manage the public health response.” However, it does not make it clear that you plan to answer any questions publicly, whether it is regarding the ongoing pandemic that has devastated Rhode Island – and the world – or anything in general in your remaining time as governor. This is extremely troubling to us.

The Rhode Island Constitution states that sitting governors have executive power during emergency situations. Since early March 2020, per your order, the state of Rhode Island has been in a state of emergency due to the pandemic. Much of our life in Rhode Island since March 2020 has been lived under the executive orders that you have put in place.

Any policies that are introduced and enforced by you, which can make or break a person’s life and livelihood, must be answered about publicly both from the media and from your constituents. And, while Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott from the R.I. Department of Health will take lead on the COVID-19 press conferences going forward, she is not the one who ultimately decides on what statewide policy needs to be implemented to address the pandemic. You do.

The way schools, colleges and businesses have operated, and how people lived in Rhode Island have changed dramatically in the last year due to the pandemic and due to the policies that you have implemented in response. The public demands to hear directly – and ask – about why such policies are put in place, how it will affect the citizens of the state, how the state plans to respond to help serve those impacted by the policies and announce updates if plans change. It is your duty to properly respond to your constituency in times of crisis, not remain silent.

You, as governor, promised full and complete transparency to the public throughout this health crisis. That includes answering questions from the public in a public forum, such as press conferences, and the pandemic did not stop in Rhode Island on Dec. 22. Other governors in neighboring Northeast states, such as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have not only addressed the public multiple times since Dec. 22, but also announced new policies and initiatives in response to the health crisis. In the process, those governors took questions from the public and news outlets about those new policies and initiatives.

Those governors did not take a month-long hiatus from the public eye, unlike you. Such action is unacceptable during normalcy, let alone during a health pandemic where more than 2,000 Rhode Islanders have died from COVID-19 in less than a year.

In closing, Governor, you took an oath to be the leader of this state, and promised the citizens here full transparency. You are still the governor of Rhode Island, not yet in Washington, D.C. We demand that you fulfill the oath of office and promise for transparency from now until you leave office. That includes publicly addressing, and answering questions about, any updated policies that are currently in place related to the pandemic.

“No comment” is not applicable with COVID-19 still posing deadly consequences to the community at large.

The Rhode Island Press Association Executive Board

New England First Amendment Coalition/New England Newspaper & Press Association

Dear Gov. Gina Raimondo,

We’re writing on behalf of the New England First Amendment Coalition and the New England
Newspaper & Press Association.

Our organizations are concerned about your lack of availability to the press since Dec. 22 when you were named as a nominee for Commerce Secretary in President-Elect Joseph Biden’s Administration. On behalf of NEFAC and NENPA, we implore you to resume full press briefings and to allow direct questioning from the many local journalists serving our communities each day.

We represent these journalists, their news organizations, and all other concerned citizens
throughout the state who have the right to know how public officials are acting on their behalf. This right to know is especially important during the current public health crisis when the state is governed, in part, by executive order and Rhode Island residents look to you for leadership and reassurance.

While your nomination to President-Elect Biden’s Cabinet is a great honor that carries with
it certain responsibilities, these must not be prioritized over your duties as governor. Making
yourself available for questioning by journalists — who serve as a proxy to the public — is one of those duties.

With Rhode Island reeling from cases of COVID-19 and a need for timely and accurate health
information, there is no substitute for direct access to the governor. While officials from the Department of Health may now lead press conferences regarding the pandemic, they cannot provide the same level of insight into the deliberative process behind your policies. Only through the direct questioning of you as governor can Rhode Island residents best understand how these immensely consequential public health policies are formed and what they are intended to do.

Since last March, you have been the key decision maker on pandemic-related questions such as how to open schools, whether to restrict businesses, or if certain health mandates or economic incentives should be put in place. Rhode Islanders now face questions about vaccine distribution and demographic priorities for inoculation, as well as whether federal assistance may be needed in the months ahead.

There are questions — related to the pandemic and otherwise — that must be answered. As the state’s top-ranking elected official, you are the best person to answer them. Limiting your availability and avoiding the press not only deprives the public of this much-needed information, but the lack of transparency shakes the confidence we have in our state government.

Again, please recognize the public value that results from taking questions from the press and
reconsider your recent inaccessibility. In times of crisis and rampant misinformation, we are
looking to you for answers.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

New England First Amendment Coalition and the New England
Newspaper & Press Association

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