The Media Today

Ron DeSantis’s narrative whiplash

April 7, 2021

On Sunday, 60 Minutes, on CBS, aired a segment examining “how the wealthy cut the line during Florida’s frenzied vaccine rollout,” and the “corruption allegations clouding” the effort. At one point, reporter Sharyn Alfonsi brought up a vaccination partnership between the state and Publix, a chain of grocery stores that, in Palm Beach County, at least, has steered doses away from public-health bodies, disadvantaging poorer residents of color, in particular. Asking why Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, chose to partner with Publix, Alfonsi noted that in the weeks before the deal was announced, the company gave a hundred thousand dollars to DeSantis’s political action committee, and that figures connected to the company have donated to the PAC in the past. DeSantis declined to be interviewed, but Alfonsi was able to confront him at a press availability near Orlando. “How is that not pay to play?” she asked. DeSantis replied that she was pushing “a fake narrative”; after some back and forth, he told her, “you’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” and pivoted to a different reporter.

The segment has since blown up, and not in a way that has been very positive for 60 Minutes. Conservative critics accused the show of deceptive editing and of pushing a baseless conspiracy; Publix, which declined to comment to Alfonsi, called the suggestion of pay for play “absolutely false and offensive.” So far, so unsurprising—but a pair of prominent Florida Democrats soon added their voices to the criticism: Jared Moskowitz, the director of the state’s Division of Emergency Management, said it was “malarkey” to suggest that DeSantis had recommended the Publix partnership; then, Dave Kerner, the mayor of Palm Beach County, went even further, accusing CBS of spreading “intentionally false” information. In a pair of statements, CBS defended its editing and reporting practices, and noted that Moskowitz had declined to be interviewed on camera. Yesterday, Moskowitz retorted that he told 60 Minutes that the Publix story was “bullshit,” adding, “the fact that I didn’t sit down on ‘camera’ because I am responding to a hundred year emergency doesn’t change the truth.”

Related: How the culture war is impeding necessary scrutiny of ‘vaccine passports’

The rare prospect of bipartisan media censure piqued the interest of national outlets. But the reality is more complicated. Melissa McKinlay—a Palm Beach County commissioner who represents a low-income area featured by 60 Minutes, and spoke to the program—furiously attacked both DeSantis and Kerner for inaccuracies in their claims. (She later buried the hatchet with Kerner.) The Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown pointed out—in response to a tweet by Megyn Kelly—that Palm Beach politics “has zero to do with Dems vs. Republicans,” but is rather about power and money. DeSantis, meanwhile, has used the episode to slam not only CBS, but the press as a whole. Appearing on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show on Monday, he accused 60 Minutes of “reckless disregard for the truth.” Yesterday, he said at a press conference that while “the corporate media thinks they can run over people, you ain’t running over this governor. I’m punching back.” He added, menacingly, that “this is not over by any stretch of the imagination.”

It’s not just 60 Minutes; throughout the pandemic, the national media conversation around DeSantis’s performance has see-sawed between competing extremes. Last May, after early predictions that COVID would hammer Florida—nourished, in no small part, by DeSantis’s many similarities to Trump—did not appear to materialize, Politico took aim at the national press and DeSantis’s “sky-is-falling” critics. “The national news media is mostly based in New York and loves to love its Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, about as much as it loves to hate on” DeSantis, Marc Caputo and Renuka Rayasam wrote. “Maybe things would be different if DeSantis had a brother who worked in cable news and interviewed him for a ‘sweet moment’ in primetime.” Florida was subsequently hit hard by COVID, but last month, with confirmed case rates down again, DeSantis won similar headlines: Politico declared that he has “won the pandemic”; CNN’s Jeff Zeleny noted that “Florida is not only back in business, it’s been in business—and the governor’s gamble to take a laissez-faire approach to coronavirus appears to be paying off, at least politically, at least for now.” Other outlets, by contrast, have continued to cover him as a reckless, swampy Trump wannabe. Which brings us back to Sunday.

Again, the truth here is messier than caricature—as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson put it last week, “Florida is where national narratives go to die.” DeSantis may have eschewed measures like mask mandates—but local officials in many densely-populated areas did not. “Florida’s COVID-19 saga is a story about local officials and regular people working in the absence of any guidance or common sense from the state,” Nate Monroe, a columnist at the Florida Times-Union, argued recently. “To the extent there were any successes in Florida, they belong to locals. Or to plain dumb luck.” Comparing the public-health and economic performances of different states is tricky; to the extent that it’s possible, Florida is hardly a standout performer. And, crucially, there’s a lot we still don’t know about DeSantis’s handling of the pandemic. Early on, inadequate testing made it hard to track viral spread; when the Miami Herald moved to sue for data about nursing homes, the state not only refused, but pressured the paper’s lawyers into dropping the case. (The Herald eventually won.) Around the same time, state attorneys blocked officials in Miami-Dade County from providing the Herald with death records, and agencies declined to acknowledge prison deaths and a testing backlog. Recently, more than two dozen researchers, journalists, and lawmakers told Mary Ellen Klas—a Herald reporter who was once barred from a DeSantis briefing after she raised social-distancing concerns—that officials have been reluctant to share data that “contradicts the governor’s upbeat narrative.”

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We do know, thanks in no small part to dogged local journalism, that Florida’s vaccine rollout has so far faced real equity issues, whatever the truth behind the Publix partnership. Dan DeLuca, of the Fort Myers News-Press, reported recently that in the early stages of the rollout, the state vaccinated wealthy seniors at higher rates than less wealthy ones, and allotted more doses to counties with higher average incomes; Zac Anderson and Josh Salman, of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, meanwhile, reported on ethical concerns around pop-up vaccination clinics at golf, yacht, and country clubs. There have been oversight concerns around Publix, too. Early last month, Sarah Blaskey and Ben Conarck, of the Herald, and Allison Ross, of the Tampa Bay Times, found that state officials shipped seventy thousand doses to Publix’s distribution center without any idea as to how the company would subsequently allocate them.

Ultimately, scrutiny of DeSantis and Florida’s vaccine rollout needn’t rest solely on allegations of pay for play—a fact that has gotten a bit lost in the national fallout from 60 Minutes. Following the money is a hallowed tenet of American journalism; following the lack of it, less so. Not as hallowed, but still a tenet, is covering leaders’ political momentum in ways that can obscure their records. That’s a bipartisan truth, as coverage of Cuomo has proved, but in DeSantis’s case, the stakes are particularly high—not just because Florida is home to tens of millions of people, but because DeSantis is clearly eyeing a national political career. It’s too early to cover 2024. But presidential bids, as we know all too well, often build on insufficiently critical early national attention.

Below, more on Florida:

  • Average devastation”: Recently, the press critic Eric Boehlert took aim at positive coverage of DeSantis’s performance. “Despite thirty-two-thousand COVID deaths in the state, as well as a mediocre at best vaccination rollout, journalists are lining up to do the Republican’s bidding,” he wrote, highlighting “the absurd (nonexistent?) standard the Beltway press often uses for grading Republican politicians.” Borrowing a line from Monroe’s column—that Florida has had “average devastation”—Boehlert concludes that “for the Beltway press, average devastation now counts as a Republican win.”
  • Piney Point: Recently, a leak was reported at a reservoir holding wastewater from an old phosphate plant in Piney Point, Florida, near Tampa, posing a catastrophic flooding risk; officials have since worked to drain water into a retention pond, and yesterday lifted a local evacuation order, though environmental risks remain. Marc R. Masferrer, the editor of the nearby Bradenton Herald, noted on Twitter that the paper has been covering the plant for the sixteen years he’s been there, while in the same period of time, “governments, politicos, and the owners of the site have failed to reach a solution to prevent what is happening right now.”
  • Gaetzkeepers: Since taking his seat in the House of Representatives, in 2017, the pro-Trump Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz has clocked nearly fifty hours of airtime on Fox. Last Tuesday, he appeared there again after the New York Times reported that he is the subject of a federal underage sex-trafficking investigation—but since then, according to Rob Savillo, of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, the network has only devoted forty-five minutes of airtime to the story. In the same period, Fox has spent an hour and a half talking about the Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (I wrote about Gaetz and right-wing media on Monday.)
  • Trump, Bump: The Washington Post’s Philip Bump makes the case that “Trump’s grip on our attention has collapsed” to levels not seen since he launched his presidential bid—as of last month, “his Google search interest was lower than at any point since June 2015, as was the amount of time he was seen on cable,” with the networks now covering him far less, as well. (He remains interesting enough for Politico to publish an “obsessive, inch-by-inch” annotation of the first public photo of his new Florida office.)

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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.