CNN lets DeSantis rewrite his anti-LGBTQ attack on Disney

The network reports that “critics say” DeSantis is engaging in a culture war attack — after DeSantis himself said so last year

CNN’s recent coverage of legislation produced by Florida's Republican-controlled legislature is downplaying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R-FL) authoritarian political vendettas and anti-LGBTQ culture wars. Not only is the network depicting this latest move against the Disney Corp. as a he-said/she-said story, but it’s conveniently forgetting what DeSantis said in the first place about why he is targeting the company.

DeSantis is working to manufacture culture war flashpoints to raise his profile ahead of a run for national office, and mainstream coverage of his political maneuvering would do well to highlight his actual stated intentions rather than helping him sand down the edges of his own extremism.

DeSantis’ fight with Disney stems from “Don’t Say Gay” backlash

DeSantis’ attacks on Disney are the culmination of a long series of demagoguery within the right-wing media and political ecosystem, beginning with when Florida Republicans passed a law forbidding the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary school settings. Commonly known as “Don’t Say Gay,” the law was itself the product of right-wing bigotry and paranoia that LGBTQ people were preying on children, and it created obvious chilling effects that further marginalized LGBTQ people.

Following protests by Disney employees, who called on the company to publicly oppose the law as the state’s largest single-site employer, the company’s then-CEO Bob Chapek belatedly declared that he was against the new law and would try to get it repealed, while the company also announced that it would pause its political donations in Florida. There then followed an avalanche of right-wing media attacks against Disney, accusing the company of supporting or engaging in “grooming” and attempting to “sexualize underage children.” The relentless coverage and calls for “taking Mickey Mouse's head and putting it on a spike” then opened the next phase of the culture war, as the GOP-controlled state government moved to abolish Disney’s special self-governing district for its theme parks in the state.

DeSantis has not exactly been evasive about his motives. When he first signed a bill last year to abolish the district, he openly said at his bill signing that he passed the law in order to fight Disney in a culture war: “You’re a corporation based in Burbank, California, and you’re gonna marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state. We view that as a provocation, and we’re going to fight back against that.” He also used the attack on Disney as political fuel for a campaign fundraising email: “If Disney wants to pick a fight, they chose the wrong guy. I will not allow a woke corporation based in California to run our state.”

CNN was aware of this, as well, having reported last year that DeSantis’ fight with Disney over the anti-LGBTQ law had “only further bolstered his standing within his party” as he looked forward to a potential presidential run.

CNN downplays DeSantis' political vendetta against Disney 

During a Monday afternoon CNN report on the status of the effort to strip Disney of its special status (and to put DeSantis’ own appointees in charge of administering the area), and the financial implications of the move, correspondent Leyla Santiago reported that “critics” of DeSantis are they ones saying “that this was sort of retaliation by the governor for a company that spoke out against how Florida discusses sexual orientation as well as gender identity in the classroom.” By contrast, she added: “Gov. DeSantis has said all along that this is more about making sure that no corporation has any sort of special privileges.”

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Citation From the February 6, 2023, edition of CNN Newsroom

Later that evening on Erin Burnett OutFront, Santiago delivered a similar framing in a packaged news segment: “Critics say it was retaliation, for Disney, the state's largest single-site employer, speaking out against a law dubbed ‘Don’t Say Gay,’ which limits how sexual orientation and gender identity are taught in classrooms.”

There then followed a clip of DeSantis himself, to seemingly rebut the charge: “We shouldn't let one company have their own set of rules, compared to everybody else.”

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Citation From the February 6, 2023, edition of CNN’s Erin Burnett OutFront

Following Santiago’s report, a panel discussion openly discussed the political nature of DeSantis’ action that the news package had obfuscated. “DeSantis has, you know, clearly taken this on, right, as a cultural issue, right?” said host Erin Burnett. “He's the ‘Don't Say Gay,’ he doesn't like their policies, this has been a thing.”

In addition, former Trump White House communications director and now CNN contributor Alyssa Farah Griffin described DeSantis’ actions as “the definition of crony capitalism.” Simply put, it should not require the presence of a serial liar and former propagandist who is now trying to rehabilitate their public image to point out a basic fact.

Santiago appeared again Tuesday morning on CNN, for a short segment in which she again privileged Republican efforts to rewrite the basic reasons why they are going after Disney, while playing down the anti-LGBTQ demagoguery at the heart of the story and attributing that reasoning only to DeSantis’ so-called “critics.”

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Citation From the February 7, 2023, edition of CNN Newsroom

LEYLA SANTIAGO (CNN CORRESPONDENT): Now, the Republicans that I have talked to tell me, look, this is about leveling the playing field, this is about making sure that one company — in this case one of the largest employers in Florida — doesn’t have any sort of special privileges here.

But the critics will remind you quickly of the history here, because this has been sort of a yearlong feud between Gov. Desantis and Disney. And if you can remember, last year, when Florida decided to strip Disney of that special district, this came at a time when critics said this is about retaliation, this is about the governor seeking revenge for Disney speaking out against a then-bill that limited how gender identity and sexual orientation was discussed in the classroom.

Fox personalities celebrated DeSantis' admitted political agenda

By contrast, right-wing media outlets have no problem praising DeSantis for using state government as an instrument of culture war against a private corporation. On Tuesday’s edition of Fox Business’ Varney & Co., correspondent Lauren Simonetti explained, “Because of this feud between Disney and Desantis over teaching sexuality issues to children, Florida moved to eliminate Disney’s special status.” If the current bill passes as soon as this week, Simonetti declared, “Disney would have to repay $700 million, almost a billion, when you take into account debt and taxes.”

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Citation From the February 7, 2023, edition of Fox Business’ Varney & Co.

In the continued discussion, Simonetti also said that Disney had failed to learn a lesson about purportedly going too far to the left on other issues, as well.

“There is The Proud Family — it’s a new Disney show — and it teaches you that white supremacy is wrong, racism is wrong,” Simonetti said. “It’s pretty in-depth, and pretty severe for young children.”

Host Stuart Varney countered that “DeSantis has called a halt. He’s put his marker down: ‘We’re not doing this.’”

Simonetti concluded the discussion: “Does Disney listen?”