One reason DeSantis is struggling? His strange, aggressive press strategy

July 13, 2023

Last summer Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, and the latest presidential candidate to get stuck in the mire attempting to culture-warrior his way to the White House, recorded a plug for a small, hyper-partisan right-wing news site.

“Hi, this is Governor Ron DeSantis,” he says into the camera. “When you see mainstream media is not giving you the facts, just turn to Florida’s Voice.” 

After torrential rains flooded Fort Lauderdale in April, news outlets seeking answers to very pressing questions were met with nothing from DeSantis, who was in Ohio for a speech, but he provided a statement directly to Florida’s Voice. “It’s wrong for the media and political critics to rush to politicize every natural disaster,” a governor’s spokesman told the outlet. 

And in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian’s destruction, DeSantis cut questions short at a press conference before he gave Florida’s Voice owner Brendon Leslie an exclusive interview. The thirty-year-old Leslie wore a T-shirt with an image of an assault rifle and the insignia of the right-wing Three Percenters anti-government militia group on it. “People are suffering and the media is already trying to shift the conversation to politics,” Leslie said. “They’re trying to politicize everything.… What’s your message to them?” 

“They don’t care about the people of this state,” responded DeSantis. “They don’t care about this community. They want to use storms and destruction from storms as a way to advance their agenda. They don’t care about the lives here.”

DeSantis, echoing Donald Trump’s successful efforts to troll the news media into becoming his ideal opposition, succinctly explained his overarching plan on a conservative podcast last year: “Don’t work with them,” he said of the media. “You gotta beat them.” 

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The governor employed that exclusionary and combative strategy when he made his technologically disastrous announcement to run for president on Twitter, a place he and his state-funded press office have routinely used to troll and browbeat reporters. In one of the more extreme instances of that, Christine Pushaw, DeSantis’s acerbic press secretary, blitzed the Associated Press with so many hostile tweets over a story (“drag them,” read one) that Twitter suspended her for twelve hours for abusive behavior.

More substantively, DeSantis backed House Bill 991, legislation aimed at gutting First Amendment press protections and making it easier to sue newspapers for defamation. 

He openly aims to hamstring the use of anonymous sources, narrow the definition of “public figure,” and use it as a test case in the courts to try to overturn the landmark New York Times v. Sullivan decision of 1964, which allows broad leeway for publication. 

That bill died in the legislature in part because right-wing media outlets also balked at the idea. But DeSantis’s policy of press avoidance is alive and well. While the governor’s office has become notorious for sitting on news outlets’ public information requests and going to court to fight releasing them, mostly it simply ignores even routine questions from reporters. 

That means the best place to find out what a DeSantis presidency, with its own pet media in tow, might look like is a grocery store down on the Gulf Coast. 


A voice booms over the loudspeaker: “Welcome to Freedom Town USA!” 

With that cue, Leslie walks onto a makeshift stage on the second floor of Seed to Table, a giant supermarket located in a 75,000-square-foot warehouse outside of Naples, in southwest Florida. With a microphone in one hand and a six-pack of Alfie’s Ale in the other, Leslie gives voice to what seems an ongoing internal monologue. 

“I got three Alfie’s Ales up for grabs,” he says while approaching the small and scattered audience with beers in hand. “We’re giving them away here… I’m just training you for the socialist government that’s on our way. Depend on me.

“For those that don’t know me, I’m Brendon Leslie,” he continues. “I’m the host of the Patriot Talk Show, founder and CEO of Florida’s Voice…the only real news reporting in the state of Florida. All things Governor Ron DeSantis and all things that conservative patriot American-loving patriots [sic] love about this nation.” 

This particular Patriot Talk Show happens to fall on the night of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, February 7. Leslie, with a flag tattoo on his right biceps and a ball cap on, provides a “preview” of the speech. 

“Ahem, it all sucks! Everything sucks!” he yells into the mic. “The economy is crashing—everything sucks! That’s the State of the Union of the federal government of America…. I just wanted to bring the truth to you at Florida’s Voice, because that’s what we do and everything sucks.… By the way, if you haven’t gotten your can of Alfie’s Ale at the bar, make sure you do. Locally brewed, Alfie’s face on the can, we all love Alfie.”

He’s talking about Alfie Oakes, a wealthy farmer, owner of Seed to Table, and a sponsor of Florida’s Voice. Oakes is an election denier who has called COVID a “sham,” claimed inflation was “specifically created” by the “New World Order,” and dubbed the US House of Representatives, when under Democratic rule, the “actual enemy.”  

It was Oakes, a large man with the countenance of a central-casting drill sergeant, who hired buses to take his protégé Leslie and roughly a hundred other fired-up “patriots” to Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021. Oakes himself took his private jet. 

As Leslie walked to the Capitol Building that day, he spoke live on social media. “I kind of wish we were storming the Capitol, I kind of wish we were all going inside and walk onto the floor and actually show these people what’s up,” said Leslie. “I wouldn’t mind leading that charge if I can get a bunch of people with me inside.” 

He later told local news station WINK-TV that he engaged in no violence and entered the Capitol only to film the siege as a reporter. “People wish things all the time,” Leslie told the station of his pre-raid talk, “but it was just a horrible coincidence.”

He’s not among the more than one thousand people criminally charged for their actions that day and has said he fully cooperated with the FBI. 

Less than two years before the Capitol was stormed, Leslie was himself a fairly nondescript reporter at WINK-TV. The Long Island native had come to Southwest Florida after working a few years for a local cable news company in a tiny town in Pennsylvania called Ephrata.

Leslie writes in his editor’s bio that he quit WINK in 2019, just a year into a three-year contract, with the “mission [to] cover Florida news honestly and factually without the corporate strings attached.” 

He told a different story in a LinkedIn posting at the time of his departure, writing that was seeking out “a new career in the public relations world!” That pursuit appears to have morphed into a podcast that he initially called Uncovering SWFL

The podcast began with a distinct conservative bent, but a look at Leslie’s work shows it has become increasingly extreme and hostile, both politically and culturally. While he initially said he left WINK because he felt it exaggerated stories, he’s said more recently that it was run by “communists.” During an appearance on the conservative Rubin Report, he called a trans woman a “thing” and an “it” before declaring that America was in a “battle between good and evil.” He teamed up with Oakes last year to help oust three Collier County commissioners who favored a mask mandate; after the candidates they backed won, Leslie quite literally whooped it up with them onstage in celebration at Seed to Table.

In December, Leslie started a website called Integrity Media that he said would expose the dishonesty of mainstream outlets. “You’re going to learn who is funding these so-called media outlets and where they get their information,” he said. 

But Leslie refuses to answer questions about his own funding, including the $5,000 he accepted in 2021 from a political committee run by then–Florida Republican Chair Joe Gruters. A few months after receiving the Gruters-related money, which was originally reported by the left-leaning news site Florida Squeeze, Leslie published a story defending Gruters against a sexual harassment claim without disclosing that his firm had been paid that money. 

Leslie denied an interview request for this article. He initially asked for written questions, which he then refused to answer. “Your story and narrative are pre-written and your questions are not in good faith,” he wrote. “So you can take your bogus hit piece and shove it up your you know what.”

Leslie then immediately tweeted about a “fake news reporter” coming after him. It was straight from the playbook of DeSantis aide Pushaw, who gave Leslie an interview last year in which she explained that the more “pushback” she gets from media outlets, the better. 

“It just means we’re doing something right, we’re disrupting them,” she told Leslie. “As the saying goes, like, when you’re getting flak, you’re over the target.”

I asked DeSantis for an interview for this story in March. After initially receiving no response, I sent a follow-up two weeks later, and this time an executive assistant for DeSantis named Gabrielle Wiggins replied: “Thank you for your interest in interviewing Governor Ron DeSantis. We noted your request and will get back to you as soon as possible if we can accommodate it.” 

It’s been silence ever since.


Candidate DeSantis recently gave a telephone interview to another friendly media figure, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, where he predictably hit upon his oft-expressed theme that the media is married to a false narrative. 

“[N]ot only are they not telling the truth,” the governor said during the June 12 interview, “they’re actively suppressing the truth.”

Yet while DeSantis uses the likes of Florida’s Voice to promote his own narrative, his state-funded attorneys have repeatedly argued in court that he holds an “executive privilege” to refuse to release public documents he wants to suppress. Such a privilege is not contained in state law or the Florida Constitution, but a Tallahassee judge ruled in the governor’s favor on the point in one case early this year. The ruling has so far allowed DeSantis to withhold the identities of legal experts who secretly advise him on judicial appointments. 

The public records lawsuit against DeSantis that has received the most attention involves his relocation of unwitting migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. After DeSantis refused to turn over requested documents involving the operation, a lawsuit was filed by the nonprofit Florida Center for Government Accountability (FLCGA) to force their release. 

A judge ruled against DeSantis, which forced his hand to release the documents being requested. Yet the governor’s office has continued to withhold some of those records, prompting a still-active motion to hold DeSantis in contempt of court. (Disclosure: I serve as the director of FLCGA’s journalism program but have no role in any litigation.)

In another telling instance, an Orlando television reporter named Mike DeForest obtained a ten-page document revealing that dozens of records requests with state agencies had been held up in “review” by the governor’s office for no apparent reason, some for as long as nine months.

The governor’s office has offered no explanation for the delays, which are no small matter: in Florida, unreasonably delaying the production of public records is a first-degree misdemeanor that can also lead to expulsion from office, and another media court case seems to have caught the governor’s office in the act. 

That case involves Grant Stern, the executive editor of the Occupy Democrats website, who sued the governor after he waited more than two months for the administration to produce a day’s worth of the phone and email communications of a single administration official.

Just three days after being served the lawsuit, the governor’s office sent Stern the records. But court filings revealed they’d been compiled fifty-one days prior to their release, and had simply sat in the office during that time. “It’s definitely a smoking gun,” says Stern, an admitted partisan. “There’s no justification for that delay.”

DeSantis isn’t just battling against records disclosure in courtrooms, he’s also doing it with an accommodating Florida legislature, as shown most glaringly in a bill the Orlando Sentinel called an “unjustified and unprecedented act of secrecy.”  

That bill, signed into law by DeSantis on May 12, exempts the governor’s travel records from public view at just the time he happens to be crisscrossing the country for his presidential bid. State Senator Jonathan Martin (R–Fort Myers) admitted the bill was prompted by the surge in media requests for the governor’s travel records, which have traditionally been a matter of public record. The bill’s sponsors cited security concerns as the impetus behind the measure, yet the new law can be applied retroactively, which seems to destroy that rationale.

“It’s so clearly an attempt to protect this information from reporters wanting to know how the taxpayers’ money is being spent,” State Senator Tina Polsky (D–Boca Raton) argued on the floor. “It’s clearly trying to hide something.” 

Readers of Florida’s Voice wouldn’t have heard about the travel bill, though, as the website didn’t cover it. Instead Leslie touted the “long list of GOP wins” that included passage of a permitless gun carry bill, bringing the minimum age to buy an AR-15 back down to eighteen from twenty-one, what the publication called a crackdown on illegal immigrants, and a six-week abortion ban. 

All “W’s,” as Leslie put it, for Freedom Town USA. 

Bob Norman has covered crime and corruption in southern Florida for nearly three decades.