The Media Today

The doomed DeSantis media pivot

July 21, 2023
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, right, shakes after his rally with Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano in Pittsburgh, Friday, Aug. 19, 2022. (Steven M. Falk/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

On Tuesday, as prosecutors sparred with Donald Trump’s lawyers over a trial date for mishandling secret official documents, David Harbach—a top deputy to Jack Smith, the special counsel in the case—batted away a claim that Trump would receive a fair trial only after the 2024 election, when media interest in him might be expected to die down. “The publicity surrounding Mr. Trump,” Harbach said, “is chronic and in some sense permanent.” For Ron DeSantis—the governor of Florida and Trump’s rival for the Republican nomination—that has come as a hard truth in the course of a campaign struggling with underwhelming polls, financial strains, and Rupert Murdoch’s waning enthusiasm.

That may have been one reason why, on Tuesday afternoon, DeSantis appeared with CNN’s Jake Tapper, granting his first major interview as a presidential candidate outside the echo chamber of right-wing media. Moments before DeSantis sat down with Tapper, however, Trump-mania kicked in again, as Trump made an announcement via his Truth Social platform: Smith’s office had notified him that he is a target in the federal investigation of the January 6 insurrection. Trump is likely to face more charges in the near future. The Trump team denied that the announcement was timed to derail DeSantis, but it inevitably had that effect; Tapper asked DeSantis to respond to the news and aired that exchange at the top of his show, then cut away from the interview for further discussion of Trump. Only later did Tapper air the rest of the conversation with DeSantis, which touched on abortion, Ukraine, and supposed “wokeness” in the military, as well as his flailing campaign. (Not on the menu: any real discussion of DeSantis’s authoritarian record in Florida.)

Up to now, DeSantis has both spurned mainstream news outlets and relentlessly bashed them. Bob Norman, a longtime journalist in Florida, wrote recently for CJR about the “strange, aggressive press strategy” of DeSantis, who summed up his approach on a conservative podcast last year: “Don’t work with them,” he said of the media. “You gotta beat them.” As Norman observed, “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.” Moreover, “DeSantis backed House Bill 991, legislation aimed at gutting First Amendment press protections and making it easier to sue newspapers for defamation.”

I had wondered, going into the Tapper interview, whether DeSantis might try to browbeat him, using Tapper as a prop in a piece of anti-media political theater. In the event, he was solicitous, almost oleaginously so. He did bring up a CNN poll that underestimated his strength when he ran for governor in 2018, but he was careful to exonerate Tapper of any involvement there; at the end, he told his host, “I appreciate ya.” DeSantis’s talking points—and, particularly on abortion, non-answers—were the same as ever. But he sounded almost, well, normal.

DeSantis’s difference in tone, of course, should matter far less to the press than what he says. But his CNN performance does seem indicative of his campaign’s aimlessness. A few weeks ago, following his disastrous, insular Twitter launch, I wrote that as much as his antipathy toward journalists might be genuine, DeSantis is also clearly an opportunist, and that it wouldn’t be a surprise to later see him “soften his edges and broaden his outreach, including through more conventional media sit-downs.” I’d foreseen that happening if DeSantis were to win the Republican primary and need to reach a broader electorate; the fact that he is already taking the leap shows that dwelling only in right-wing fever swamps isn’t working for him even at this stage.

I also wrote that pivoting would involve “self-imposed limitations: DeSantis has made contempt for the mainstream press so central to his persona that he’ll likely find it hard to back off, even if he wants to.” The Tapper interview, to my mind, underscored those limitations. It’s hard to imagine Trump supporters—whom DeSantis is clearly trying to peel off by outflanking Trump on the right—being impressed that he appeared on CNN; it’s equally hard to imagine anyone who appreciated seeing DeSantis on CNN also being impressed by him trying to outflank Trump on the right. Mainstream-media exposure is one thing; using it to your political advantage is another. A Jake Tapper interview will not turn around a campaign that’s in the doldrums.

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Shortly before DeSantis appeared on CNN, the authors of Politico’s Playbook newsletter argued that he failed at running the campaign of a “frontrunner,” and is now restyling himself as an “insurgent.” At least on the media front, the insurgent candidates that have so far succeeded in getting their messages across in the primary (Chris Christie perhaps foremost among them, as I also wrote recently) have done so via old-school schmoozing with the mainstream media—and by scratching our chronic Trump itch by attacking the former president head on. 

Neither of these options realistically seems open to DeSantis, who can’t simply force us to memory-hole his extensive record of Trumpism and Trumpian media-bashing. Barring a major plot twist, when we come to remember how DeSantis treated the press, Norman’s depiction is more likely to be front of mind than the awkward schmoozing with Tapper. You can read my recent newsletter on DeSantis’s media strategy here, and Norman’s piece here.

Other notable stories:

  • Semafor’s Max Tani reports that Paramount, the owner of Showtime, ditched a documentary about DeSantis that had been set to air on the channel in May after a Paramount lobbyist raised concerns about its political consequences. The documentary, which was produced by Vice, concerned DeSantis’s past service as a lawyer at the notorious Guantanamo Bay military prison, and planned to allege that he was present for force-feedings that the United Nations later classified as torture. The decision to kill the program came at a turbulent moment for both Vice and Paramount and has thus “gotten lost amid the two companies’ other woes—Vice’s bankruptcy, Paramount’s scramble to cut expensive original programming,” Tani writes. “But the episode is in fact a rare, and serious, glimpse at how a big media company killed a potentially controversial story.”
  • The Washington Post’s Shawn Boburg, Emma Brown, and Ann E. Marimow reveal that the influence of Leonard Leo—the conservative judicial activist who has perhaps done more than any other individual to define the current composition of the Supreme Court—has stretched far beyond shaping appointments to the bench: in recent years, the trio report, groups linked to Leo have helped fund a media campaign aimed at bolstering the reputation of the long-serving Justice Clarence Thomas, including via newspaper op-eds, websites, Twitter accounts, and a book and “laudatory film.” The Post’s story is the latest in a rash of investigations scrutinizing the financial flows around Supreme Court justices, a trend that I wrote about in a recent newsletter.
  • Also according to the Post, the union representing staffers at the New York Times has filed a grievance with bosses over their recent decision to ax the paper’s sports desk in favor of further integrating content from The Athletic, the non-unionized sports site that the Times acquired last year; the union is accusing management of “a brazen attempt at union-busting.” In other media-business news, a dozen or so staffers at the San Diego Union-Tribune—including Jeff Light, the top editor—are on the way out following the paper’s sale to Alden Global Capital. And the nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune is taking over the Moab Times-Independent and making it free; Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire has more.
  • For Poynter, Nora Neus explains why she decided to pay people that she interviewed for a new oral history about the 2017 white-supremacist riot in Charlottesville, even though paying sources is taboo in US media. “As we’re having industrywide conversations about whose stories get told and who profits financially from those projects, it’s worth revisiting this blanket rule with some more nuance,” Neus writes. There are ethical issues with paying for stories, “but when working with marginalized people and essentially profiting off their trauma, there are also ethical issues with not compensating them.”
  • And finally, some Barbenheimer Weekend reading for those planning to observe. Andy Kifer, of the Times, explored how a totemic biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer nearly never got written. The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel spent time with Richard Rhodes, the author of a different classic Oppenheimer book that has recently become “a kind of holy text for a certain type of AI researcher.” And David Mack regretted that BuzzFeed News is no longer around to interview people called “Barb Heimer.” Happy viewing.

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

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.