Minnesota governor Tim Walz has refused to grant a conservative journalist access to the state's daily coronavirus press briefings.
Scott Johnson, cofounder of the award-winning website PowerLine, has covered the state government's response to the pandemic in a daily series titled, "Coronavirus in One State." The posts regularly receive hundreds of comments from readers around the country.
The Minnesota Department of Health holds press briefings on the coronavirus every weekday. The events typically attract about 50 reporters, but when the governor joins them—as he often does—access to the briefings becomes more restricted. Health officials told Johnson that on those days the governor’s office controls attendance and instructed him to contact Walz’s office for access, according to correspondence reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon.
He did, sending five inquiries between April 15 and April 23. The governor’s office has not replied to any of those inquiries, raising questions about whether Walz, a Democrat, is intentionally excluding a journalist who has offered tough coverage of his response to the pandemic.
Walz’s office said the governor’s events are limited to a dozen media outlets credentialed by the Minnesota legislature. Credentialing by the legislature requires organizations to show that "they provide regular news coverage of the legislature," the Minnesota senate says in rules posted online.
Walz's approach to informing the public is a departure from the practices other governors have adopted amid the pandemic. Maryland governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, has not restricted access to his briefings, an aide told the Free Beacon. "Social distancing is implemented, but there haven't been any limits in terms of which outlets can access the press conferences," the aide said. Louisiana's Democratic governor John Bel Edwards has opened briefings not just to all news outlets, but to the general public, a state official told the Free Beacon.
Johnson was included in the broader health department briefings and corresponded with department officials last month, but after he wrote reports and asked questions critical of the Walz administration, officials stopped responding.
Minnesota's health department told the Free Beacon that access to the briefings is limited "only to professional journalists." It did not respond to questions about the criteria that determine whether a reporter is a "professional journalist" and did not explain why Johnson was excluded after having previously attended the briefings.
President Donald Trump, who has made the White House press corps his bête noire, has faced fierce backlash for attempting to bar reporters from the White House. After revoking CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta's press pass in 2018, the White House restored it in the face of a legal challenge.
Walz’s press briefings are pooled, meaning that only a select number of reporters are granted access.
But the governor’s office has declined to tell Johnson what the parameters are for participation in the coronavirus briefings or to respond to inquiries related to the pandemic, something that Johnson called "unusual" in his nearly two decades of writing for PowerLine.
"I’ve dealt with a lot of Democratic officeholders, officials, and press contacts over the 18 years I’ve been writing for PowerLine," Johnson told the Washington Free Beacon, adding that the silence from the governor’s office is "unusual in my experience."
In a series of reports on PowerLine, a blog founded in 2002 by Johnson and two fellow attorneys, Johnson has criticized the governor’s decision to shut down the state, pointing to the fact that the vast majority of coronavirus fatalities in Minnesota have occurred in long-term care facilities—mostly nursing homes—with a median age of 83 for all fatalities to date.
The blog rose to prominence in 2004 after playing a key role in ousting CBS News correspondent Dan Rather. Later that year, it was named Time magazine's inaugural "Blog of the Year" and continues to garner a significant following in Minnesota and among conservatives around the country.
Johnson participated in weekday briefings run by the health department starting in mid-April. While Walz participates in the briefings several times a week, those briefings are "coordinated by the Governor's communications office," agency spokesman Michael Schommer told Johnson on April 15, pointing him to Walz’s press secretary Teddy Tschann.
Government emails obtained by the Free Beacon show that Schommer passed along Johnson’s April 27 inquiry regarding the statewide shutdown to Walz communications aide Jeremy Drucker and state agency communications liaison Emmalyn Bauer with the message "for future discussion." Drucker went on to forward the message to Tschann.
As of mid-May, more than 80 percent of Minnesota's coronavirus deaths occurred in nursing homes and residential care facilities—the highest percentage in the country, according to the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. The statistic has received attention in both local and national media as of late, though Johnson began calling attention to it as early as April 7. He used the large proportion of nursing home deaths to criticize Walz's stay-at-home order, arguing that such an order could focus on safeguarding the state's elderly and medically compromised while allowing much of the economy to continue to operate.
Walz implemented a stay-at-home order based on a University of Minnesota model predicting a death toll of 74,000 if the state failed to act. Even with the shutdown, the model projected 50,000-55,000 deaths. Walz extended the stay-at-home order on April 30, as the death toll in Minnesota stood at 343, according to state data. The department revealed the day before the extension that 99.24 percent of coronavirus-related deaths in the state occurred in long-term care facilities or among people with significant underlying health conditions.
Walz loosened stay-at-home orders on May 14, the same day that the state released an updated model projecting 1,441 deaths through the end of May. Health officials reported 731 deaths as of Monday.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Johnson is the father of Washington Free Beacon editor in chief Eliana Johnson.