RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper has been a frequent image on screens across North Carolina since the COVID-19 outbreak. The briefings include his chief lieutenants and prepared remarks from the state’s chief executive. Many of Cooper’s virtual press conferences have allowed for questions from the media to the governor and his staff.
North State Journal reporters have diligently attended press conferences and online briefings. However, those same reporters have had little opportunity to ask questions of Cooper during his media availability briefings throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, or in obtaining public records from his office.
Since the March 27 briefing, North State Journal has not been called on during any of the governor’s question-and-answer sessions. Cooper has typically given two, and sometimes three, briefings per week since that time. For the entire months of April and May, NSJ has been shut out of asking questions to Cooper.
That was not the case earlier in March.
At the onset of the activation of the Emergency Operations Center and in-person briefings, NSJ began attending them along with reporters from Raleigh-area television and newspaper outlets. At the March 17 briefing, NSJ was able to ask three questions (one and then two follow-ups) regarding application of mass gathering limits at churches.
The next week, as the pandemic quickly became very serious, Cooper announced in-person briefings would be canceled to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, and instead, a dial-in number was provided for media questions. Twice during the latter half of March, NSJ was called on to ask questions of the governor.
March 27 was a Friday, and the last time the governor and his press team would call on NSJ.
Beginning on March 31, Cooper’s administration began using a new platform to conduct the media availability. This new platform required users to register each day for the briefings. Transitioning to technology platforms is a familiar routine in the current state of affairs, but the new digital queuing system has given the administration the ability to pick and choose who can ask questions.
It is no surprise that certain outlets such as WRAL, the Raleigh News & Observer, and ABC 11 seem to get called on during every briefing. Charlotte Agenda, a website covering entertainment, development, and news around Charlotte, has been called at least three times during Cooper’s briefings. NSJ, none. North Carolina’s only statewide newspaper is not the only outlet to voice frustration. The Carolina Journal and WBT Radio’s Brett Jensen have also reported similar treatment.
In an email on April 16 sent to Keith Acree, the public relations officer at the Emergency Operations Center, NSJ asked why we were not being called on for questions. That email was ignored.
A follow-up email to Acree was sent on May 21, and he replied with the following: “For most news conferences, we have 20-30 reporters dialed in from across the state. We usually have time for about 8-10 questions.”
This still doesn’t answer why WRAL, The News & Observer, and ABC 11 have consistently had reporters, and even multiple reporters, get to ask questions during every briefing.
The teleconference platform the administration is using is called MaestroConference. Many North Carolinians have quickly become experts with Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams in the past two months. NSJ looked into MaestroConference and noticed several left-leaning political clients. Among them were Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, MoveOn.org, and Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
In a recent interview with the company’s chief operating officer, NSJ learned that MaestroConference began as a campaign platform for progressive causes and is still primarily used for that purpose. The company indicated that representatives from N.C. Emergency Management reached out to them for demos and negotiated use of the platform.
The COO did seem surprised, however, that the briefings were only being used for the narrow purpose of screening calls and questions from media. Our reporter learned the primary purpose of MaestroConference’s platform was to organize teams in “breakout” sessions during calls, such as field work on a political campaign.
After the June 8 briefing, Senate Leader Phil Berger’s press office tweeted, “At what point will #ncpol reporters start demanding more than pre-screened press briefings from @NC_Governor, who hasn’t held an in-person press conference for the entirety of this emergency?”
It is worth noting that Berger, Speaker Tim Moore and other General Assembly leaders have held in-person briefings since the short session began.
Left out of this story are the numerous public records requests and emailed questions that have gone unacknowledged and unanswered since early April. After taking office, Cooper promised to have the “most transparent administration ever,” and on May 28, prior to a consortium of news outlets filing suit regarding their own public records requests, Cooper said at his press briefing, “We want to make sure that we comply with the public records laws and I want to make sure that every agency in state government does that.” He added, “This administration is making a lot of data available, particularly as it relates to COVID-19, and working hard to make sure that data is available more and more every single day.”
It is time for the free press to be given the access needed to keep the public informed on their government and hold officials accountable to the over 10 million citizens of our state. The Cooper administration must do better.