Government & Politics

Governor’s office blocks NEK television host Steve Merrill from press briefings

Steve Merrill hosts his regular show, "It's News to Us," on NEK-TV.

Public access television host Steve Merrill has been banned from Gov. Phil Scott’s popular bi-weekly press conferences.

Merrill had been a fixture for months in the largely virtual briefings, cultivating a reputation for asking provocative questions of the governor and top cabinet officials. But after he posed a question Tuesday about how the state would determine who qualified to claim membership in groups of indigenous people, Scott spokesperson Rebecca Kelley asked Merrill to stop calling in.  

“Governor, you'd mentioned set-asides for the BIPOC community,” Merrill said at Tuesday’s press conference, referring to distribution plans for the coronavirus vaccine. “What with no tribal — federal tribal recognition and, you know, reservations or anything like that, how would one qualify as indigenous? Do we use the Elizabeth Warren standard with high cheekbones or did you just take people's word for it?” 

Merrill has asked similar questions before, aimed at determining whether minority groups would be able to get priority treatment in the state’s Covid-19 vaccination schedule. There is no such plan.

The regular press conferences, which sometimes run to two hours with about 25 reporters calling in, are aired live on Vermont Public Radio. Kelley said she received complaints about Merrill’s question after Tuesday’s event, prompting her to review some of his past work. Merrill produces a twice-weekly show as a volunteer for the Northeast Kingdom’s public access television station, NEK-TV.

Kelley had previously told VTDigger that it’s not the job of the governor’s office to determine which news outlets may participate in the press conferences. Since last March, the briefings have been open to anyone who has claimed to be a journalist. Kelley said Thursday she stands by that view. But, she added, “when we reviewed his program, it is clearly not news.”

Rebecca Kelley, director of communications for Gov. Phil Scott. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“It seems to be what I would call hobby entertainment,” she said. “We felt that this was a cut-and-dried scenario where we could make the determination that it’s not a news program.”

Kelley wrote to the director of NEK-TV, Tod Pronto, on Wednesday to ask for his take on how the office should proceed in light of the listener complaints.

“Considering the long-overdue national reckoning on systemic racism happening in America, and our renewed efforts to address bias in our state and nation, we are compelled to reach out to you. This is not the first time our office has received messages from concerned Vermonters about perceived racist comments/questions in these briefings from Mr. Merrill,” she wrote Pronto. “The Governor shares these concerns.”

The next day, Kelley emailed Merrill to tell him he was out.

“We had not previously reviewed your program, as we were taking you at your word that you were producing a news program,” Kelley wrote Merrill. “Our review shows that is not the case and your show is clearly not a news program.”

She added that Merrill could appeal to the governor’s chief of staff, Jason Gibbs. That’s something Merrill plans to do.

“I think it’s sending a chilling effect on the media,” he told VTDigger.

For his part, Pronto said he was surprised at Kelley’s decision and felt Merrill should be able to participate.

“We’re a public access television station, and we exist for the sole purpose of our community being able to exercise their First Amendment rights, and I stand behind the First Amendment, whether or not I agree with the content of what was said,” Pronto said Thursday. “He does do a news commentary program on NEK-TV, and that is why we exist in the first place, is for the purpose of the public being able to exercise their views.”

Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott answers questions at a press briefing last May. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Merrill, too, said he thought the action was out of line, and on Thursday he asked the governor’s office to reconsider. He said he doesn’t know how many people watch the program but said he’s been appearing on air since 2009. The show is available in 17 towns.

“We have had a lot of comments and stuff from viewers lately, more supporters than detractors, actually, about the questions I ask the doctor,” Merrill said, referring to Dr. Mark Levine, the state commissioner of health.

Valley Reporter editor Lisa Loomis, who serves as president of the Vermont Press Association, declined to comment, noting that the organization does not represent public access television stations.

Vince Illuzzi, who previously served on the board of NEK-TV with Merrill, said he couldn’t comment on Merrill’s remarks in the press conference but he didn’t think it was appropriate for the governor’s office to block Merrill altogether.

“If the question appears nonsensical, the appropriate thing to do is pass, not to permanently exclude an individual from the press conference,” said Illuzzi, a Derby resident who represented Essex and Orleans counties in the Vermont Senate for 32 years.

“You can just say, ‘I’m not going to answer that question now; you can feel free to call me later,’” Illuzzi said.

Erin Petenko contributed reporting.

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