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Gov. Tate Reeves, in a live interview on national television on Friday, revisited an old strategy he employs when he’s backed into a corner, struggling to defend his actions or inactions: He questioned scientific data, challenged experts and blamed the press.
On Friday morning, a CNBC anchor asked Reeves about two troubling statistics: Mississippi has fully vaccinated just 14% of the state’s residents and ranks 47th in the nation in administering the COVID-19 vaccines that the state has received.
Reeves disputed the data, saying, “Actually, I don’t think those numbers are accurate.” The CNBC host rebutted with, “I didn’t pull that number out of thin air. That’s from a publication in your own state, governor. It’s called Mississippi Today, I’m sure you’re familiar with it.”
“Well Mississippi Today is certainly a very liberal rag that’s a website, it’s not even a real news source,” the governor said.
Reeves never backed up his claim that the vaccine numbers were inaccurate, and he didn’t acknowledge the data he questioned definitively shows that Mississippi lags behind most other states in putting shots in arms.
The playbook for many politicians is simple: If data show that things are bad, question the data. If experts say things are bad, challenge the experts. If reporters ask why things are bad, blame the reporters. Reeves, who has taken this approach for years, isn’t the first to do it and won’t be the last.
But Reeves has relied on this playbook since the pandemic began — a troubling trend for the first-term governor responsible for leading the state’s pandemic response and recovery. Here are a few of several examples:
- In March 2021, shortly after he rescinded the state’s COVID-19 orders like mask mandates and capacity limits, Reeves was asked by a reporter to respond to a warning from CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky that states not reopen too soon. In response, Reeves said, “Many of the folks that are in charge, including even the CDC, tend to take a more political approach than a scientific approach when trying to address this virus.”
- In November 2020, many of the state’s top medical experts penned a letter to Reeves asking him to re-implement a statewide mask mandate. They argued that the growing number of cases were overloading the state’s hospital system and that the governor’s county-by-county mask mandate strategy wasn’t working. In a press conference, Reeves blasted who he called “so-called experts” who challenged his decisions.
- In August 2020, during a significant surge in COVID-19 cases, CBS “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan asked Reeves about data showing 11 Mississippi hospitals had zero ICU beds available. After downplaying the severity of the virus spread in the state, Reeves told Brennan: “I think the data you’re looking at is two or three weeks old.” Brennan was citing up-to-date data from State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs.
- In July 2020, Reeves took to Facebook Live and blamed the “hypocrisy of the media” for covering Black Lives Matter protests rather than the coronavirus, saying that gap in coverage led many Mississippians to believe COVID was a hoax and to stop wearing masks. But most Mississippi news outlets had posted daily updates about the virus since the first case reached the state. After backlash, he said he was referring to the “national media,” not local press.
Today, he seldom talks to the media — just at them or about them. His staff takes days to answer basic questions, or sometimes doesn’t answer them or even acknowledge them. As the pandemic worsened in 2020, Reeves held fewer public appearances and press conferences.
Reeves, who has long been careful to calculate decisions and messaging based on future political ambitions, may believe such attacks on the press poll well in pockets of Mississippi. But the attacks are rarely defensible or based in fact, and they most often come when he’s clearly uncomfortable.
As for the governor’s comments about Mississippi Today not being a “real news outlet”: he’s wrong and he knows it, considering he has shared many of our articles from his own social media accounts. Our COVID-19 coverage, in particular, provided context and data to his own staff, who used it as they navigated difficult policy decisions, a former Reeves senior staffer told us last year.
Our journalism, regularly published by dozens of others news outlets across the state, has reached tens of millions of readers. We closely adhere to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, and we’re proud members of the Mississippi Press Association.
Journalists don’t like being the story. We’re taught to avoid it at all costs. Unfortunately, the governor made us the story by criticizing our work on a national platform, deflecting attention from the real one: the state’s struggles to administer vaccines.
Last week was our newsroom’s fifth anniversary, and in reflecting on where we’ve been and where we’re headed, I wrote about how we’ve been perceived through the lens of politics. Readers on the right have sometimes criticized us for being too left-leaning. Readers on the left have sometimes criticized us for not doing more to directly bring about political change.
But there’s common ground I know we can all stand on: Unchecked power is harmful to every Mississippian. That’s why we launched this newsroom five years ago. We tell stories and share perspectives we believe to be true, and we work to hold elected officials — Republicans and Democrats — accountable. All the while, we focus our reporting on the experiences of Mississippians most marginalized by the decisions those powerful officials make. Truth, not politics, is our guiding principle.
The trauma and loss so many have experienced during the pandemic will continue to be difficult to manage. Seeing the signs of normalcy is so encouraging. Dwelling on problems can be difficult, but we believe a better future for Mississippi cannot come unless we’re honest about our past and present.
While Mississippi’s current cases and hospitalization have improved, our health leaders are telling us to stay vigilant — to wear masks and get vaccinated — because the virus is not gone, though Reeves’ executive orders are. We’ll keep boosting their voices and the data they’re collecting because they know better than anyone that Mississippians have suffered. We, after all, have the fifth-highest number of deaths per 100,000 of any state in the nation.
More than ever, Mississippians need leaders to be honest about our challenges and do everything they can to get more people vaccinated so fewer families will have to suffer and we can all get back to normal. Questioning data, challenging experts and blaming the press does nothing to get us there. Nothing.
Mississippians deserve truth, from our governor and from all our elected officials. Too many lives remain on the line for anything less.