Reporters on the Record: Covering the Capitol During COVID (Part I)
It’s one thing to have a story worth telling. It’s another to have that story told—and heard—in the echo chamber that surrounds the Connecticut State Capitol.
The relationship between Connecticut’s state government and news media predates the formation of our nation. The Fundamental Orders established Connecticut as a self-ruled colony in 1639, and a century and a quarter later, in 1764, the Connecticut Courant started its run as the oldest continuously published newspaper in the United States.
Today, the Fundamental Orders reside on Hartford’s Capitol Avenue in the building that houses the State Library and Museum and serves as the seat of the Connecticut Supreme Court. Across the street you’ll find the Governor and the General Assembly in the State Capitol, along with the men and women of the State Capitol Press Corps.
On any given day you can expect to see the reporters roaming the Capitol corridors talking with the governor or lieutenant governor, other constitutional officers, legislators and their staff. Until now.
The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has made a profound mark on the way journalists cover the governor and state legislature. The legislature adjourned in March, empowering Gov. Ned Lamont to steer the ship of state by executive order. He has issued roughly 70 to date. The State Capitol and Legislative Office Building (LOB) are closed to the public and Gov. Lamont has entirely changed the manner of his interaction with the press corps.
We are profoundly grateful that three veteran journalists who cover the Capitol shared their insights with us on doing their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
• Jodi Latina has spent time as a reporter, an elected official, a legislative staffer and chief of staff to New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart. She is currently in her second stint at News 8. As their Political Correspondent, Jodi covers policy and political stories coming out of the State Capitol, including major state and federal elections.
• Christine Stuart has been editor of CTNewsJunkie.com since 2006, after nearly four years as a reporter at the Journal Inquirer in Manchester. Prior to that, she covered education and transportation issues at the State Capitol for the Hartford Advocate. In April 2020, Stuart joined NBC Connecticut as a political reporter, and appears on the station’s Face the Facts Sunday news program.
• Christopher Keating has been the Hartford Courant’s Capitol Bureau Chief for 21 of the past 23 years, covering the past five governors from Lowell Weicker to Ned Lamont. After graduating from Fordham and Columbia, he worked for the Greenwich Time, covering politics and polo. He was named to The Washington Post’s list of top Connecticut political reporters four times.
A governor in a pandemic
As we’ve noted before, Connecticut is used to getting it straight from our governors, especially when the chips are down—from Ella Grasso during the Blizzard of ’78, all of her successors have seen us through weather events and tragedies, often at the state’s Emergency Operations Center located in the State Armory in the Capitol complex.
That is where Gov. Lamont began briefing Connecticut in February. By March, after needing more elbow room for safe social distancing and a way to provide a more consistent feed for the American Sign Language interpreter, his team established the practice of holding daily briefings in the State Capitol’s Old Appropriations Room, with the media in attendance—remotely.
Rather than filling the room with their pads and microphones, reporters ask their questions via telephone after having their names called off a list by Max Reiss, Gov. Lamont’s communications director (and a former Capitol reporter). To veteran Capitol-watchers, it’s a bizarre new world.
Q: What challenges did this new format present in covering the administration?
Latina described a bracing moment when it became clear to her things had changed.
“Let’s go back to March. All of the Capitol Press Corps was lined up facing a podium where the governor would give his briefing, there were no masks, no social distancing and the state epidemiologist said, ‘If you live in Fairfield County and you have a cough and a fever, you should assume you have COVID-19.’
“Operations quickly pivoted,” Latina explained. “Daily calls, texts and zooms filled the void of in-person interviews. I covered the day-to-day story and we had a night-side reporter cover the governor’s 4 p.m. daily briefings.”
Stuart pointed to a remark by The New York Times’ Peter Baker in a recent POLITICO article as emblematic of most reporters following public officials and politicians: “We’re all watching from the outside.”
“There is less access to the administration,” Stuart said. “Interview requests have been denied and information has not been forthcoming because the relationships are frayed and everyone seems to be on edge. [This is] all understandable, but less access to information is not something that’s welcomed by the media.”
Keating: “At the beginning, they really didn’t know what to do,” said Keating. “They held some briefings at the Emergency Response Center, then outside at the Governor’s Residence, and within about a month they settled into the remote routine where we call in and wait to be called.
“We practiced it multiple times with the Governor’s staff,” Keating added. “And while the briefings go relatively smoothly now, you really need to be on your toes. First, you don’t know when you’re going to be called, and if someone has already asked your question, you need to have backups ready.”
“Follow-up questions can be tough, too. When you’re in person, the governor can generally tell if you’ve got another question. Also, sometimes we reporters will quietly signal each other if we’re onto a hot topic and need a little more time to finish. You can’t do either of those things on the phone.”
Stuart agreed: “Instead of being able to shout out a question or follow up on a question asked by another reporter you have to wait to be called upon. So they are less organic and it’s harder to build on a narrative that usually emerges when we are collectively able to ask questions at will.”
Q: What opportunities did this new format present?
Latina: “A never-ending spigot of information during a pandemic. The story from the time the sun rose to the time the sun set would evolve 10 times. There would be news from the ground that a certain sector of the safety net was shredding. Next, there were hundreds of non-profits unable to get personal protective gear, no direction on how to handle COVID-19-positive patients in group home settings, people lost their jobs and schools shut down.
“But there the governor and his staff were, lined up to answer questions and sometimes raise an eyebrow to a new situation that now they had to investigate. Communication is key and in a crisis of this magnitude. I truly believe the administration was learning as much as journalists were in real time.”
Keating: “We maintained pretty good access to the governor and his people. [Former] Gov. Malloy typically wanted to be the one to deliver the news, but Lamont relies more on his people. As a consequence, you’re generally able to get your questions answered.”
Stuart: “I think COVID has proved the value of the news media and the jobs we do getting information. We’ve had to figure out how to get information in new and different ways, but we’ve adjusted.”
Q: Do you think this trend will continue?
All three agreed that this routine of gubernatorial news briefings would generally continue for COVID, with modifications.
Latina: “The pattern, I believe, will remain. The trend has continued but at a much slower speed. The administration’s briefings have settled into a Monday, Thursday 4 p.m. staged briefing pattern with on-the-road events Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.
The information on health metrics is extremely important to staying on top of the pandemic. If the metrics climb again, as is anticipated with flu season around the corner, we may see the road show stop and the daily 4 p.m. briefing come back.
Stuart said she believed that beyond the new way of interacting with the media, the method of governing by executive order would continue, as well.
“I don’t believe things will change. They will simply get harder and harder. The governor just extended his emergency order, which expires in September, to February which would be bad for democracy.
“This week’s challenge by legislative Republicans to a blanket extension of the emergency order was the first sign of stirring in the legislative branch, which has generally been happy to sit on the sideline in an election year as the administration takes the heat.”
Next up: Covering the legislature
Speaking of the legislative branch, in our next installment, Latina, Stuart and Keating weigh in on the General Assembly. The state Senate and House of Representatives returned to the Capitol in July for one-day sessions in each chamber, operating under an extraordinarily changed process characterized by social distance, restricted attendance and House members voting remotely from their offices in the LOB.
What was it like to cover an especially unique special session?