In a new book, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, lays out the case that the future of America can be seen in his state. He says so right in the title: The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival.
If he’s right, American newsrooms have reason to be very nervous. In the race for the Republican nomination for president, DeSantis is widely expected to run against Donald Trump, who, both as a candidate and in office, made antipathy toward the press a central tenet of his politics. Perhaps in an attempt to differentiate himself from his Florida neighbor—or as part of a wider ploy to show he’s Trumpier than Trump—DeSantis is doubling down on press threats to an extent never before seen in a (presumed) major-party candidate.
Some of DeSantis’s anti-media ploys are old favorites, like stonewalling public-records requests and bullying reporters who write articles that he doesn’t like. Trump did these things, too, but in a sense, DeSantis is playing the bad cop to Trump’s Pick me! approach, in which he seemed to grant reporters nearly unlimited access even as he publicly pilloried their employers. DeSantis, by contrast, largely shut out the mainstream media during his reelection campaign in Florida last year.
DeSantis is dangerous in more insidious ways, too. Last month, according to a report in Politico, he urged Florida’s Republican-controlled state legislature to consider a slate of breathtaking anti-press measures. The proposals go beyond the usual efforts to gut libel laws, including lowering the threshold for when a public figure can sue a media outlet. In a serious threat to investigative reporting, Florida’s legislature is now looking at a provision to specify that comments made by anonymous sources in news stories would be presumed false for the purposes of defamation lawsuits.
The Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times, covering the legislation, wrote that it’s reasonable to assume that any anti-press legislation will leach out of Florida:
Given the governor’s clout in Tallahassee, it stands a solid chance of passage this spring in the Republican-controlled state Legislature and would likely spur more defamation cases in Florida, legal experts say. Because of the clear-cut constitutional questions, the legislation could eventually be appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where at least two justices have already signaled they are interested in revisiting libel law and press protections.
Ironically, this is in some ways a delicate dance for DeSantis, who has squared an antipathy for the mainstream media with a public embrace of Fox News. Fox, as I wrote last week, is now fighting a defamation suit, in which its primary defense is rooted in the very legal framework that DeSantis is hoping to weaken. DeSantis seems happy to present himself as a practitioner of journalism—or at least memoir—as he promotes his book, which was published by a unit of Rupert Murdoch’s empire. (In a review in the New York Times, Jennifer Szalai noted this conflict and was otherwise scathing of the book, writing that, although DeSantis’s first book “was weird and esoteric enough to have obviously been written by a human, this one reads like a politician’s memoir churned out by ChatGPT.”)
Whether or not DeSantis ever gets the chance to take his “Florida blueprint” national, we are, in a sense, all already living in an increasingly Floridian media environment. In 2021, Bob Norman wrote for CJR that the state has become the right-wing media capital of the country. DeSantis has played a role in that dynamic. As Norman wrote, with reference to the thoughts of Bob Sutton, a local Republican activist:
Sutton says Conservative émigrés also feel “safe” in South Florida, as opposed to other more liberal metropolitan areas, because of the political makeup of the state. While Florida is generally a purple state, it’s blood red in terms of raw power, with a Trump-loving governor in Ron DeSantis, a pair of Republican senators, and a decades-long GOP-controlled legislature ruling its largely dysfunctional roost. DeSantis in particular has become a maga darling and much-hyped 2024 presidential hopeful with an unofficial campaign slogan of “Make America Florida” based on a much-propagated myth that the state was kept “open” during the pandemic.
Also, per Sutton:
“It’s the good weather and low taxes.”
What an irony it would be if the conservative-media capital of America ends up as the nexus of the biggest threat to the country’s press. Talk about the courage to be free. You can read Norman’s piece here.
Some news from the home front: Mark your calendars for March 20, when CJR and the Columbia Journalism School will host a symposium looking at inequality in America and how it’s covered in the press. More details, including on how to sign up, are available here.
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times, addressed staff at the annual “State of the Times” event, reflecting prominently on, among other topics, the paper’s business-side success and its coverage of democracy, which Sulzberger called the “most important word” of 2022. Sulzberger also nodded to ongoing talks with the paper’s union, insisting that management is “eager” to reach agreement on a contract soon.
- Sulzberger also addressed recent criticism, including from some Times contributors, of the paper’s coverage of trans people; he said that the Times always takes criticism “seriously,” but also defended the coverage against “outside groups” and “those campaigning to discredit” it. The Times’ associate managing editor for standards also defended the paper’s coverage this week in a letter responding to critics.
- The tech-news site cnet—which recently sparked controversy after it used artificial intelligence to write articles that were subsequently found, in many cases, to contain falsehoods and plagiarism—is laying off around a dozen staffers, some of them long-serving, Mia Sato reports for The Verge. Per Sato, the cuts don’t seem related to the AI controversy; indeed, cnet’s parent company plans to use AI again going forward.
- By contrast, the deployment of AI could soon cost jobs at Axel Springer, the German publishing behemoth that also owns Politico and Insider; according to The Guardian’s Jonathan Yerushalmy, Mathias Döpfner, the CEO, recently told staff that AI could “make independent journalism better than it ever was—or simply replace it.” Springer insisted that “reporters, authors, [and] specialist editors” would not be among those cut, however.
- And Politico’s Michael Schaffer writes that while Chris Sununu, the Trump-skeptical Republican governor of New Hampshire, isn’t yet a candidate for president, he’s already smashing the “Permanent-Washington Primary”—or “the battle for the hearts and minds and television bookings and annual dinner invites of the Beltway-media-industrial complex.” Whether this will impress Republican primary voters is a different matter.
ICYMI: One year on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where does the ‘cyberwar’ stand?Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.