The Media Today

What DeSantis got wrong about the media—and the media got wrong about DeSantis

January 22, 2024
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Republican presidential candidate and Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis delivers remarks at the Faith and Freedom Road to Majority conference at the Washington Hilton on June 23, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Last April, Ron DeSantis did an interview with a right-wing media personality and said that he would join a conservative boycott of Bud Light after the beer brand partnered on an ad with a transgender influencer—another shot fired in the Florida governor’s permanent culture war. In May, DeSantis said that he was running for president, breaking the news in a glitchy livestream with Elon Musk on X (then known as Twitter). In July, with his campaign beginning to lose steam, DeSantis stepped out of the conservative echo chamber for the first time as a candidate and started sitting for interviews on mainstream networks. In November—with his campaign’s steam lost, more or less irretrievably—he appeared on Fox News for a debate with California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, who teasingly asked DeSantis when he would be dropping out of the Republican primary; DeSantis scoffed at the question. Ten days ago, DeSantis criticized conservative media—including Fox—for acting as a “Praetorian Guard” for the GOP front-runner, Donald Trump. A week ago, after mainstream outlets called the Iowa caucuses for Trump in double-quick time, the DeSantis campaign accused them of being in the tank for Trump. 

On Thursday, DeSantis told a conservative radio host that he regretted not doing more mainstream media hits earlier in his campaign. “I should have just been blanketing,” he said. “I should have gone on all the corporate shows.” On Saturday, DeSantis canceled planned hits on Sunday-morning shows on NBC, CNN, and Fox. His campaign cited a scheduling conflict, saying that DeSantis would be busy traveling to New Hampshire to campaign ahead of that state’s primary tomorrow. Yesterday afternoon, DeSantis dropped out of the race and endorsed Trump. He broke the news in a video message posted to Twitter (now known as X). “Winston Churchill once remarked that ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts,’” DeSantis said. There is no evidence that Winston Churchill ever said this. A very similar quote can apparently be found in a late-1930s ad for Budweiser.

Thus ended a campaign defined by one heel turn after another (and also by, erm, heels). DeSantis’s approach to the media was a case in point. As we reported last summer, he entered the primary having long privileged engagement with right-wing outlets (some of them remarkably fringe) at the expense of the mainstream “corporate” media, which he at once shunned and relentlessly attacked—part of an explicit strategy to beat the press rather than joining it. Once it became clear that this strategy wasn’t working, DeSantis joined CNN’s Jake Tapper for a much-remarked-upon sit-down amid rumors of a broader media pivot. At the time, I suspected that DeSantis might use Tapper as a prop in a piece of combative political theater. In the end (as I wrote at the time) DeSantis was “solicitous, almost oleaginously so.”

I also wrote at the time that DeSantis’s pivot to greater engagement with the mainstream media would run up against self-inflicted limitations: he had made media-bashing so central to his political appeal that simply casting it aside would suggest an identity crisis; meanwhile, the voters receptive to DeSantis going on CNN were never likely to embrace his hard-right message, while those receptive to his message were never likely to embrace DeSantis going on CNN. Those contradictions have, indeed, played out ever since: DeSantis has criticized both conservative and mainstream media while continuing to engage with both, without showing the political deftness necessary to thread such a needle. Rather than an act of course correction, his pivot always looked like one of aimless desperation.

In initially limiting himself to conservative media, DeSantis seemed to believe that he could project strength and avoid scrutiny while meeting right-wing voters where they, increasingly, are; in pivoting to the mainstream press, he and his allies seemed to believe that they could reach a broader audience while sanding the edges off negative coverage. But this rationale depended, at least in part, on the assumption that primary voters didn’t know DeSantis very well and would warm to him once they did; in fact, DeSantis was a heavily covered candidate from the start, and voters seemed to like him less as their exposure to him grew. (Among other things, he proved to be an excruciatingly awkward campaigner.) And again, if DeSantis pivoted between mediums, his message—which was tailor-made for extremely online right-wing fever swamps—never really changed. As I see it, his media strategy was as much a symptom of his failure as a cause.

Ultimately (and much like his campaign as a whole), DeSantis’s media strategy came apart at the seams once Trump jumped into the race. Where DeSantis ultimately flopped both inside the conservative media echo chamber and with at least one foot planted in the mainstream media landscape, Trump, whether intentionally or by sheer force of gravity, ultimately bent both ecosystems to his will—the former by retaining a tight grip over its audience, the latter through a combination of selective engagement, performed conflict, and permanently outrageous behavior that collectively added up to saturation, if not obsession. Neither media landscape was big enough for the both of them.

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If DeSantis erred in his approach to both the conservative and mainstream media universes, then both media universes—or, at least, significant subsections of each, neither being a monolith—were wrong about him, too. Rupert Murdoch’s media empire initially appeared to place a strategic bet on DeSantis as the rising star on the right—after he won reelection in Florida last fall, the New York Post splashed the headline “DeFUTURE”—only for Murdoch to reportedly lose interest as DeSantis flailed and the Republican base congealed once again around Trump. Early mainstream coverage of DeSantis’s campaign, meanwhile, was hardly glowing—but much of it nonetheless played into the “rising star” narrative by playing up his chances. (Even liberal commentary casting him as a greater danger than Trump implicitly credited DeSantis with political cunning and competence.) 

Viewed in a certain light, the fact that DeSantis tried but failed to remain a viable candidate while totally circumnavigating the mainstream media points to hopeful conclusions for that media’s ongoing relevance. But the tenor of our initial coverage of his campaign also points to much less flattering conclusions about our proclivities: the irresistible yet unreliable allure of the shiny object; the folly of premature saturation coverage of the presidential horse race; and, perhaps most damningly, a fundamental misunderstanding of Trump and his appeal, which can’t simply be studied like a science and reproduced under lab conditions.

Some of the early coverage of DeSantis’s exit from the race has focused on his (many, and undeniable) missteps as a candidate: his lack of charisma, his gaffes, the turmoil at his super PAC. (In a lengthy, quadruple-bylined postmortem that dropped even before DeSantis quit yesterday, NBC reported that the PAC’s leader spent a significant portion of his time in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses working on a jigsaw puzzle, an anecdote the network cast as “emblematic of the mismanagement and wasted efforts” of the campaign.) Such coverage is fair game, and we can expect more of it in the days to come. But as we analyze DeSantis’s failures to master the trappings of professional politics, we should avoid portraying him as a sure thing brought low by his own shortcomings, and ask whether his sureness was always more projection than reality.

We should remember, too, that there are vastly more important things in life than the trappings of professional politics. This whole time, DeSantis has been serving as governor of America’s third-most-populous state, which he has turned into a shop window for his own presidential aspirations, with very human consequences. At first, his aspirations focused national media scrutiny on these consequences, but over time, those have increasingly been overshadowed. 

The editorial board of the Miami Herald concluded yesterday that while DeSantis’s campaign may have ended, “the damage of the laws he has pushed through in Florida, as he landed more appearances on Fox News, will live on.” At the end of his video, right after misquoting Churchill, DeSantis himself turned his attention back to his “mission” in Florida. We should do the same.

Other notable stories:

  • The Atlantic’s Yair Rosenberg catalogued instances in which journalists, jurists, and others have mistranslated or misleadingly rendered quotes from members of Israel’s war cabinet that appeared to communicate their explicit genocidal intent toward Gaza. “No outlet or activist should be cavalierly accusing people or countries of committing genocide based on thirdhand mistranslations or truncated quotations,” Rosenberg writes. “Neutral principles like these can’t resolve the deep moral and political quandaries posed by the Israel-Hamas conflict. They can’t tell readers what to think about its devastation. But they will ensure that whatever conclusions readers draw will be based on facts, not fictions—which is, at root, the purpose of journalism.”
  • On Friday, the union representing staffers at Sports Illustrated said that the Arena Group, which publishes the magazine, was planning to cut “a significant number, possibly all” of the magazine’s union-represented staffers; according to the New York Times, some staffers were laid off immediately while others were given a stay of execution of at least ninety days. The news came after Authentic Brands Group, which owns the Sports Illustrated brand, revoked a publishing deal with the Arena Group after the latter missed a payment. Bosses at Arena told staffers that they intend to continue publishing the magazine, but it’s unclear how this might happen or if Sports Illustrated will survive at all.
  • Last week, the Plaindealer, a newspaper in Ouray County, Colorado, reported on its front page allegations that a seventeen-year-old girl was raped repeatedly last year, during a party at the home of the local police chief. (Three people have been arrested in the case, including the chief’s stepson.) After the paper came out, hundreds of editions went missing from newspaper boxes across the county. A local restaurant owner has since admitted to stealing the papers because of the story; the Plaindealer has not disclosed his motives, but did report that he has no connection to the suspects or the police chief.
  • Recently, I reported on a media battle in Poland, where a new, moderate government has sought to free state-run outlets from the grip of the previous far-right administration, including by invoking commercial law to change the outlets’ management and place them into a state of liquidation. Last week, Poland’s constitutional tribunal, which is seen as being controlled by allies of the former government, ruled that those moves were illegal—only for officials to declare the ruling invalid. Notes from Poland has more.
  • And—after the House of Representatives passed a federal “shield law” designed to protect journalists from surveillance and from having to reveal their sources—Roll Call’s Megan Mineiro profiled the unlikely bipartisan duo who sponsored the bill: Maryland’s Jamie Raskin, a prominent Democrat, and Kevin Kiley, a Trump-endorsed California Republican. The pair drew on an old connection: Raskin once taught Kiley at Yale Law School.

ICYMI: Iowa was called early. Republicans won’t let that happen again.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.