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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

DeSantis and the media: (Not) a love story

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses a news conference near the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Fla., June 28, 2021.

By Blake Hounshell and Leah Askarinam

If Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida somehow becomes the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2024, two factors will help explain why: his mastery of his party’s hostile relationship with the mainstream media, and his relentless courtship of Fox News.

An exchange in August 2021 is a typical example of how DeSantis interacts with the press — with a combination of bluster and grievance modeled on Donald Trump, his political mentor and potential rival.

The delta variant of the coronavirus had just arrived, and a question about the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the state set him off. There was plenty of room in Florida’s hospitals, he explained.

Then, with a jerky, almost robotic forward-chopping motion, he gestured at the reporters gathered in front of him. “I think it’s important to point out because obviously media does hysteria,” he said. “You try to fearmonger. You try to do this stuff.”

Awkward and ineloquent as the moment was, it was vintage DeSantis — a frequently underestimated politician who has made the media his focal point and foil throughout his rapid rise. The clash, not the case numbers, which averaged nearly 25,000 a day in Florida at the peak of the delta surge, led that day’s headlines.

“It’s the undercurrent of his operation,” said Peter Schorsch, the publisher of “Trolling the media.”

Former aides say that DeSantis views the press as just another extension of the political process — a tool to weaponize or use for his own benefit. During a recent interview on “Ruthless,” a conservative podcast, he expounded on his philosophy.

“Too long, for many of these Republicans, they would always defer to the corporate media,” DeSantis said. “They would try to impress the corporate media. Don’t work with them. You’ve got to beat them. You’ve got to fight back against them.”

He’s proven remarkably deft at fighting back.

The day after a “60 Minutes” report suggesting that Florida’s vaccine program had been influenced by political donors, DeSantis gave a 26-minute news conference — complete with a PowerPoint presentation — to decry CBS’ reporting as “malicious smears” and “a big lie.” Media critics agreed the segment was flawed.

“I think you need that approach,” said Dave Vasquez, his former press secretary. “Some outlets are out to land a big punch on him, so he goes into it thinking, ‘I’m going to fight really hard.’ ”

The incident with “60 Minutes” earned him the sympathy of the right-wing media ecosphere, which cheered DeSantis as he pounded CBS for deceptive editing and misleading innuendo.

“I view it as positive feedback,” he later boasted. “If the corporate press nationally isn’t attacking me, then I’m probably not doing my job.”

The candidate from Fox

DeSantis has shrewdly cultivated the right-wing media — and Fox News above all.

It began in 2012, when DeSantis was an unknown candidate for a U.S. House seat in Florida. Somehow, he managed to score an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, where the nervous-looking, 33-year-old Iraq veteran spoke about then-President Barack Obama and his supposed lack of support for Israel.

DeSantis won that race, and the relationship blossomed over the ensuing years. When DeSantis ran for governor in 2018, he appeared regularly on Fox in what former aides acknowledged was a strategy aimed at securing the primary endorsement of the network’s No. 1 fan. Sure enough, Trump endorsed him, and DeSantis went on to defeat Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee, by fewer than 33,000 votes.

Lately, it often seems like Fox News is promoting another campaign: DeSantis’ thinly disguised bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.

Last year, The Tampa Bay Times revealed that various Fox shows requested the Florida governor appear on the network 113 times between November 2020 and the end of February 2021 — almost once a day. The Times quoted emails from Fox staffers gushing about DeSantis, with one producer calling him “the future of the party.”

In response to the Tampa Bay paper, Fox said it “works to secure interviews daily with headliners across the political spectrum, which is a basic journalism practice at all news organizations.”

A ‘sandpapery’ relationship

The mainstream press, which DeSantis invariably describes with epithets like “the corporate media” or “the Acela media,” tends to get brass-knuckle treatment — when it gets access to him at all.

Former advisers say DeSantis was often dismissive of the Florida press corps in particular, which he saw as biased and irrelevant. “I don’t think anybody reads them,” he told one aide.

In a March 2021 profile, Michael Kruse, a senior writer for Politico Magazine, described the governor’s relationship with the media as “sandpapery at best.” Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, the publisher of The Miami Herald, in 2020 accused the governor’s office of pressuring the newspaper not to file a public-records lawsuit seeking information on how elder-care facilities were handling the pandemic. His spokesperson denied the allegation.

After The Associated Press ran a story implying that DeSantis was helping a top donor by promoting Regeneron, a biotechnology company selling a coronavirus treatment, Twitter briefly suspended the combative account of his press secretary, Christina Pushaw, for what the social media company said was abusive behavior.

Journalists in Florida privately describe a climate of fear since the arrival of Pushaw, who often engages in late-night Twitter battles with her foes. On Sunday night, she suggested that Democratic operatives posed as Nazi sympathizers at a rally in Orlando. She deleted the tweet after an outcry, acknowledging it was “flippant.”

“There’s nothing in there that could be interpreted as giving cover to neo-Nazis,” Pushaw said. “It’s despicable what they’re doing. I would never condone that in any way.”

As for the criticism that she is too combative with the press, Pushaw is unapologetic. “I think the press has been combative with the governor, and I call that out,” she said.

Asked about DeSantis’ relationship with the media, she said, “The governor is willing to work with any reporter who covers him fairly.”

His former aides as well as his critics describe his approach to the media as methodical and ruthless, in contrast to Trump’s haphazard, seat-of-the-pants approach.

“He has studied what has worked and left behind what doesn’t,” said David Jolly, a former Republican congressman who has contemplated running against him for governor. “He’s very good at maximizing the Trump benefit without bringing along the liabilities.”

Conservative writers have celebrated DeSantis for regularly coming out ahead in his battles with the press. Dan McLaughlin, a columnist for National Review, compared the governor to the Road Runner for his ability to keep “escaping with his head high while his pursuers’ plans detonate in their faces.”

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