It’s been a long 333 days.
It’s been that long since Gov. Jim Justice held his first virtual COVID-19 press briefing March 19.
Since then, he’s held 168 more. That’s more installments than there were episodes of “Fantasy Island” or the original run of “The Twilight Zone,” shows that offered morals and melodrama while focusing on people looking for an escape.
Justice’s COVID-19 briefings — all 200 hours or so of them — also have fit that bill. But unlike those series, the briefings haven’t been centered on guest stars.
They’ve been dominated by Justice, who knows how influential they can be.
At his State of the State address Wednesday night, Justice offered reasons why he thought Donald Trump — who Justice has repeatedly praised and defended in COVID-19 press briefings — failed in his bid for a second term as president.
The first reason Justice gave was that Trump stopped holding COVID-19 briefings.
“I believe when he was talking to the people, the people really, really, really were dialing into President Trump,” Justice said.
A powerful platform
People have dialed into Justice, too. His briefings have made headlines for trotting out his dog to predict the score of the Super Bowl, appearing to utter a curse word and calling it an audio glitch and advocating for a large-scale relief package greater than what many other Republicans support.
“Certainly, a leader has a right and a microphone and a platform to tell you whatever they want to tell you,” said Rita Kirk, a communication studies professor and director of the Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility at Southern Methodist University. “And if they think that it advances their cause, then ... they’ve been entrusted, they’ve been elected to be there. So their speech is powerful.”
With great power comes the responsibility to do what author and historian John M. Barry, who wrote a top New York Times bestseller about the 1918 influenza pandemic, said has been a vital goal too often ignored during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is as simple as telling the truth,” Barry said.
“Rather than spin and try to obfuscate, just be really clear and direct, particularly on the issue of public health and science,” said Christina Bellantoni, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Unlike Trump, Justice hasn’t made a habit of downplaying the novel coronavirus or undermining his own public health officials at press briefings. He’s been consistent in urging West Virginians to wear masks, get the COVID-19 vaccine and remember those killed by the virus.
But Justice, whose office did not respond to a request for comment for this story, has sent mixed messages at his briefings about how West Virginians should respond to the threat of COVID-19 and how his administration was handling the crisis.
‘I guess everybody is looking to me’
“I really don’t know exactly why this is this way, but I guess everybody is looking to me or the government for guidance,” Justice said at a March 19 briefing.
At his March 16 briefing, Justice told West Virginians to “go to Bob Evans and eat” if they wanted to, a day before he ordered restaurants, bars and casinos to close.
At a briefing on the day before Thanksgiving, Justice told West Virginians to be careful on the holiday but said it was fine for them to be with their families, scoffing at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance recommending people gather only with others in their households even as West Virginia hospitals dealt with dwindling capacity due to a rise in cases that only got worse after the holiday.
“I would tell you, absolutely, be with your families,” Justice said, five days after he advised West Virginians to gather with family members virtually to at least some extent. “This idea of regulating how many you should be with and everything else, that’s ridiculous.”
Justice has at times lashed out at reporters during his briefings rather than addressing questions about his administration’s pandemic response.
During his Aug. 24 briefing, Justice responded by criticizing a reporter who asked about the state’s vetting of small business grants from a $150 million pot that he set aside from federal CARES Act funding.
At his Dec. 9 briefing, Justice responded to a reporter’s question about limited availability of data pinpointing the state’s highest COVID-19 transmission areas by indicating that he found the question “disrespectful” and arguing against another state shutdown in a six-minute answer.
At his Jan. 8 briefing, Justice ignored a reporter’s question about the state’s escalating death toll and instead reiterated previous remarks that local press coverage of the state’s pandemic response had not been positive enough. Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus czar, described the reporter’s reference to the death toll was a “really important observation.”
Justice has been joined by state health and pandemic response officials at his briefings throughout the past 11 months, frequently deferring to them to answer questions about the state’s COVID-19 preparedness and health advice.
Political leaders and health experts, Kirk said, are incentivized to approach briefings differently.
“[I]f you challenged what was going on in a rural [part of the state] and you’re saying there are not enough vaccinations or underserved populations are not having as much access, the scientist would jump on that to see if that were true and see what they could do to remedy it,” Kirk said. “The politician would try to say, ‘We care about all the people, we’re not underserving anybody.’ So they have different motives.”
How Justice and other governors compare
Justice was one of nine U.S. governors running for reelection in 2020. All nine won a second term.
But Justice has differed greatly from his counterparts in his style of press briefings and dissemination of information.
Justice’s press secretary selects which reporters ask which questions, in whicheve order, or if at all.
Reporters, who are never physically permitted in the same room as the governor, are then allowed to ask one question with no chance for a follow-up query.
Justice’s office did not allow the Gazette-Mail ask a single question in three briefings in June the week after this outlet published an investigative report detailing the origins of 50,000 counterfeit masks that state officials purchased at the height of the pandemic and then left in use for first responders even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told state officials they were counterfeit. The report also detailed high-dollar payments to individuals across the United States with no experience in emergency safety equipment.
The Gazette-Mail sent a reporter to camp outside the Capitol building to press Justice going in and out of the building at the end of the week.
“[Not allowing follow-up questions] gives more control over the situation to the person hosting the press conference,” Kirk said.
While Justice pivoted to three-times-a-week briefings in the summer after most businesses reopened and after his decisive win in the Republican gubernatorial primary, other governors elected for weekly or semi-weekly press briefings after late May and June. All reporters were allowed follow-up questions, and most were allowed in the same room as the governor and health experts.
In North Carolina, where Gov. Roy Cooper ran for reelection, he held press briefings once every two or three days until mid-August, then moved the sessions to once about every six days. Briefings averaged from 30 minutes to one hour, with reporters calling their questions and follow-up questions into the briefing room.
Cooper, a Democrat who won the governorship in the Trump-majority state in 2016 by just 10,277 votes, was headed for another tight race in November. But Cooper allowed six days between his last press briefing and Election Day, unlike Justice, who held one the day before.
Cooper has also gone back to holding near-daily press briefings in recent weeks due to continued spread of the virus in the state.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott on Feb. 5 held a one-hour, 45-minute question-and-answer session with reporters. Scott averages by far the longest briefing time of the nine governors — nearly two hours — but dedicates more than half of the session to taking questions.
Missouri Gov. Michael Parson and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu opted for free-flowing press conferences during the pandemic. Parson, averaging about 30 minutes per briefing, took questions from reporters who stood in the hallway. Sununu conducted similar hour-long conferences with reporters who followed up on their questions if the answer was not clear.
Parson and Sununu leaned on health experts during briefings and did not intercept questions meant for health and safety officials. Justice often bats down questions critical of the governor’s guidelines before health experts can respond to those inquiries.
Sununu and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum allowed reporters in the same briefing room and also reserved time and follow-up questions for news organizations across the state who could not be there in person.
Justice, early in his defense of excluding reporters from the briefing room, said his system benefited the news organizations across West Virginia who couldn’t be in Charleston.
Delaware Gov. John Carney and Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb operated similar video system technology as Justice’s press office, holding weekly briefings with reporters who asked follow-up questions to the governor and health experts.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee held briefings most similar to Justice, using a video call-in system with reporters, himself and few health experts. However, the briefings lasted about 45 minutes, with a majority of the time being dedicated to reporters with follow-up questions.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who were not up for reelection last year, have held briefings on most weekdays in recent months that, like Justice’s, often last an hour or more.
Bellantoni thinks the visibility that comes with the press briefing platform is a double-edged sword for chief executives.
“You have the ability to reach a lot of people with important public health information. You’re also putting yourself up to more exposure to voters, which usually isn’t a bad thing,” Bellantoni said. “So that’s good, but at the same time, more interacting with the press can create more friction, more problems, and then people tend to associate you with whatever that crisis is.”
Mixing politics with public health updates
Justice hasn’t shied away from politicized comments in COVID-19 press briefings, criticizing U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and attacking his opponent in last year’s governor’s race, Democrat and Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, a few times before the election.
As Trump sought to overturn his legitimate presidential election defeat, Justice defended him at COVID-19 press briefings, both in response to reporters’ questions and unprompted.
“I, for one, wish to goodness that we could have had an extended amount of time to where ... we could have been absolutely assured that the elections were just perfect,” Justice said at his Jan. 8 briefing, at which he condemned then-House delegate Derrick Evans for taking part in the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol two days earlier. Evans resigned from the House a day after the briefing.
“Wherever you are, you have a responsibility to convey the most up-to-date, accurate information, and if you’re using it to take potshots at your political opponents, then it’s less useful and it further divides people,” Bellantoni said, noting the harmful politicization of mask-wearing in America.
“The truth does matter,” Barry said. “The truth can save lives, has saved lives in many countries around the world, and not telling the truth has cost lives in the United States.”
During Trump’s COVID-19 briefings that Justice noted the importance of during his State of the State address, the former president touted dangerous or unproven treatments like injecting disinfectant and the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine while downplaying the nation’s death toll.
Justice, though, hasn’t downplayed West Virginia’s death toll, instead leading briefings by methodically reading the ages, genders and counties of residence of those who had died since his last briefing and hailing West Virginians for their resolve in getting through the crisis as best they can so far.
“Keep everybody pulling the rope together, and please everyone remember the 2,175 people that we’ve lost in your prayers, your thoughts,” Justice said in closing out his briefing Wednesday.
At his Nov. 16 briefing, Justice shot down anti-mask activists’ opposition to executive orders he enacted the prior week mandating that face masks be worn in all public buildings at all times, with few exceptions.
Justice said he had taken calls from people claiming COVID-19 isn’t real and calling for West Virginia to follow South Dakota, where Gov. Kristi Noem refused to mandate mask wearing, even though the Dakotas’ COVID-19 transmission rates were among the nation’s highest.
“Right at this moment, all we need to do is try to, some way, break the chain of this killer that’s eating us alive,” Justice said. “I need your help. I really need your help.”
Justice was talking to an audience that had already helped him another way, handing him a second term via a resounding win over Salango and a Republican supermajority in the state Legislature two weeks earlier. The same audience and state and local health stewards would keep helping over the coming weeks as West Virginia became a leader in vaccine rollout.
And at Wednesday’s State of the State, an ebullient Justice pushed an ambitious agenda that included eliminating the state income tax and praised the state’s — and his own — response to the COVID-19 crisis.
“I believe with all in me that I am battle-proven,” Justice said.
Like most shows that become a hit, the face of West Virginia’s COVID-19 response has been renewed.
“[T]he more visible you are to your people,” Bellantoni said, “the better.”