Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis relies on Fox News — and mainstream media’s mistakes — to promote his willful inaction on the pandemic

It’s not just Fox. Mainstream outlets like CNN, The New York Times, and Politico are pushing DeSantis’ spin, too, and burying the negative details

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is continuing his state’s defiant response to the coronavirus pandemic by not only refusing to impose public restrictions, but even seeking to crack down on local governments which attempt to take such basic measures as mask mandates. In doing so, he has an ally in Fox News — the network that frequently undermined public health efforts and even now is trafficking in dangerous anti-vaccine theories — and also in mainstream media outlets, which are making some key mistakes in attempting to cover him.

On Thursday, DeSantis held a “public health roundtable” event featuring hand-picked supporters of his policies including Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist and frequent Fox News guest who also advised DeSantis last year. At the event, Atlas reportedly called contact tracing of infected individuals a “completely wrong strategy,” and declared there was “no evidence that a mask mandate has worked.”

Notably, Atlas had previously joined former President Donald Trump’s team of medical advisers — after many appearances on Fox in which he frequently spoke out against most advice from virologists and epidemiologists on how the country should have dealt with the pandemic. The Washington Post had reported that during his time at the White House, Atlas advocated for a dangerous “herd immunity” strategy of simply allowing the virus to spread, and he had also “shot down attempts by Birx and Fauci to expand testing … and advanced fringe theories, such as that social distancing and mask-wearing were meaningless and would not have changed the course of the virus.”

Much like Atlas’ path to the White House, DeSantis also built his career on Fox News. As Politico explained in 2018, “DeSantis’ cultivation of his Fox relationship made all the difference” in his upset victory in the Republican primary for governor that year. He then returned to the network in 2020 to build up a positive image at a time when the pandemic was ravaging his state, after he had reopened far earlier than elsewhere.

Now, he’s relying on Fox and other media outlets to promote his handling of the public health crisis, while downplaying the costs of his decisions.

Fox News is pumping DeSantis up

The Fox-DeSantis relationship continues into the present, as well. DeSantis appeared this past Saturday with Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, who asked him about his state’s pandemic response: “New York is still a mess, and you got it right. How did you do it?”

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Citation From the March 13, 2021, edition of Fox News’ Justice with Judge Jeanine

Meanwhile, Fox’s purported “news side” has also helped to spread a pro-DeSantis message.

On Monday’s edition of Special Report with Bret Baier, the anchor used a misleading statistic, during a discussion with Fox senior analyst Brit Hume. “Cases in California 33,500,000, a little bit more than that as of March 15, deaths 55,000,” Baier said. “Florida cases there, you see them, 1.9 million, deaths 32,000.”

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Citation From the March 15, 2021, edition of Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baier

This statistic was also repeated on Fox News @ Night with Shannon Bream, in a discussion between the anchor and two right-wing guests, Florida Republican Party Vice Chair Christian Ziegler and Fox News contributor Marc Thiessen.

Baier and Ziegler only gave the raw numbers of cases and deaths in each state, along with an on-screen graphic that presented those numbers, seeming to give the impression that Florida had done a far better job than California. But in fact, California has nearly twice the population of Florida — making a raw-numbers comparison virtually useless without adjusting for that difference, an error that was quickly noted on social media.

When adjusted for population, Florida really has more cases and deaths per capita in comparison to California, with 151 deaths per 100,000 people in Florida compared to 140 in California. Also quite concerning, Florida has had a substantially higher number of cases in the past week, 141.3 cases per 100,000 people compared to just 47.6 in California.

Mainstream media outlets are bungling the DeSantis story, too

CNN has run a segment this week by the network’s chief national affairs correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, which begins with a clip of DeSantis triumphantly declaring that “it’s booming here because you can live like a human being.”

But both the segment and an accompanying text article by Zeleny fail their audiences by putting all of Desantis’ own seemingly positive framing up front, such as a lede sentence declaring that he is “standing unabashedly tall among the nation's governors on the front lines of the coronavirus fight.”

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Citation From the March 16, 2021, edition of CNN’s Erin Burnett OutFront

It is not until nearly three minutes into the video segment, and many paragraphs into the text piece, that certain caveats start to really become visible — as well as the hidden underside of DeSantis’ preferred storyline:

  • It is not until the 16th paragraph that readers actually learn that experts believe “comparing one state to another is complicated and often counterproductive,” with factors such as Florida’s humidity or New York City’s population density presenting very different pictures.
  • In the 20th paragraph, readers learn that DeSantis has been “locked in one fight after another with the state's media over transparency on Covid statistics and other issues.” For example, the Miami Herald explained this month that Florida state government had “spent a year stonewalling, obfuscating and evading requests for information about such vital matters as the number of COVID deaths recorded by [medical] examiners’ offices, details about contact tracing to see where transmission was occurring and which eldercare facilities had seen outbreaks among staff and residents.”
  • And then, in the 25th paragraph, readers learn of a possible scandal about DeSantis allegedly giving his top donors privileged access to vaccinations by placing “invitation-only” clinics in their upscale communities. The Miami Herald also reported on this story, describing one such example: “Ocean Reef Club is an ultra-exclusive neighborhood that is arguably one of the highest-security private communities in the nation. … It’s also home to many wealthy donors to the Florida Republican Party and GOP candidates, including Gov. Ron DeSantis.”

The New York Times has also attempted a seemingly more balanced piece — though it begins with the wistful, dream-like headline ‘I’d Much Rather Be in Florida.’ The subheadline then explains the real issue: “Floridians are out and about and pandemic restrictions have been lifted. There’s just one problem: The virus never went away.”

The article’s lead paragraph is also quite blunt about the real cost of the state’s decision to just play down the dangers: “Other than New York, no big city in the United States has been struggling with more coronavirus cases in recent weeks than Miami. But you would hardly know that if you lived here.” The Times also explains that Florida’s economy isn’t exactly “booming,” either, with tourism having fallen and the state government facing a $2.7 billion deficit that “will need an injection of federal stimulus money.”

That headline, however, is immediately problematic — not only because most people do not click past headlines — but because the Times then leaves itself vulnerable to being twisted around by right-wing media outlets. And indeed, both Fox News and PJ Media have now cited that turn of phrase to claim that DeSantis is receiving a positive reappraisal.

Politico, meanwhile, is presenting a triumphalist, near-perfect image for DeSantis, with a post on Thursday night, “How Ron DeSantis won the pandemic,” along with a full-length magazine profile touting his presidential hopes for 2024.

“He was right,” the profile begins. “Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, has been saying as much for weeks — in partisan speeches, on conservative cable, at often out-of-the-way vaccine sites around the state in quick-hit appearances as spartan as they are scripted.”

Deep into the article, one finally learns: “Mayors say DeSantis didn’t make the hard decisions—they did. He shunted the onus as well as the political peril, they contend, by making them enforce rules he wouldn’t and hasn’t,” and only toward the very end is it noted that Miami’s Republican mayor is one of those critics, and “hasn’t been able to get him on the phone for months.”