Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been attacking Florida’s education system, aiming to transform public schools and universities into hotbeds of “anti-woke,” reactionary conservatism. But instead of highlighting the racist and sexist nature of DeSantis’ extreme policies and their impact on Floridians, some mainstream national media outlets have framed the governor’s actions around his intentions to strengthen his own “brand” and “reshape” Florida colleges “into more conservative-leaning institutions.”
Some of DeSantis’ recent proposals include defunding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs in the state’s colleges and universities, banning a pilot Advanced Placement African American Studies program, galvanizing a conservative takeover of the liberal New College of Florida, blocking critical race theory courses in colleges, and tracking high school student athletes’ menstrual cycles.
As Republicans continue to fearmonger about “woke” ideologies supposedly being forced upon children in educational institutions, the media have a responsibility to correct the narrative that DeSantis is merely taking a stand on the conservative side of a “culture war.” Outside experts have emphasized the significance and benefits of DEI and CRT initiatives in students’ education, but DeSantis’ proposed policies further baseless assertions that critical race theory is “state-sanctioned racism” or that teaching the concept of gender is an attempt to “groom” children. In doing so, DeSantis is not making savvy political reforms, but instead, as our colleague John Knefel wrote, “is using his office to produce and perpetuate power hierarchies across race, gender, and sexuality, the ground upon which so-called culture wars are contested.”
Rather than focusing on the dystopian nature of DeSantis’ policy plans, several mainstream national news outlets have glossed over their extremist origins and potentially grave consequences in their recent coverage:
- The New York Times largely framed DeSantis’ (and other Republican governors’) policies as a question of “electability,” rather than focusing on how the proposed policies would impact communities they target. In the February 6 article, the Times also described him as the anti-woke campaign’s “loudest champion,” who “scored an apparent victory attacking the College Board’s curriculum on African American studies.”
- Another Times article also used this framing, which put more focus on DeSantis’ electability than his proposed policies and how they could harm marginalized communities. In the January 31 article, the Times also painted DeSantis as an underdog and characterized him as a “vocal culture warrior, vowing to take on liberal orthodoxy and its champions.” According to Media Matters’ John Knefel, “By immediately framing DeSantis as an underdog, the Times adopts the governor’s own messaging — he appears as a brave outsider, taking on the ‘establishment,’ rather than the powerful executive authority that he is.” And rather than explaining the scope of DeSantis’ goals, the article provided “a sanitized account of DeSantis’ conservative interventions into public school curricula and policies.”
- The Times also reported the College Board decided to alter the curriculum for AP African American Studies after it “angered” DeSantis, suggesting that his grievances are legitimate. The February 1 article claimed, “The arguments over the curriculum underscore the fact that the United States is a country that cannot agree on its own story, especially the complex history of Black Americans.” The conflict did not emerge as a result of discrepancies in U.S. history, but due to conservative attempts to obfuscate the legacy of racism in this country.
- Politico quoted DeSantis and his allies, but noted opposition to the proposals only briefly at the very end. In a January 31 piece, Politico failed to mention the negative impact of these policies on students and simply stated that DeSantis is targeting “ideological” programs and that his goal is “to reshape Florida’s colleges and universities into more conservative-leaning institutions.”
- CNN suggested that DeSantis’ proposals are merely part of a social cleavage and that the proposed policies are elevating his favorable status with conservatives. In a January 25 article titled “A new partisan era of American education,” CNN disturbingly claimed, “However you view DeSantis’ motivations, he is getting results.” A February 2 article noted that DeSantis has “seen his standing among conservatives soar nationwide following his public stances on hot-button cultural and education issues.” Though this article briefly noted the importance of DEI initiatives, both CNN pieces, like the Times' reporting, reduced the policies to a matter of political popularity.
- The Atlantic made the dubious claim that “if the people of Florida, through their electoral choices, want to wreck one of their own colleges, it is within the state’s legitimate power to do so.” The January 30 article referred to DeSantis’ plans as “harebrained meddling,” but rather than focus on calling out DeSantis’ use of his office to initiate hate-fueled policy changes, the author blamed Floridians for their governors’ demagogic choices, writing, “If the people of Florida, through their electoral choices, want to wreck one of their own colleges, it is within the state’s legitimate power to do so.” The suggestion that voters “should head to the ballot box and fix it” is particularly sardonic given that the same groups DeSantis is targeting through his education policies have also been the target of voter suppression efforts in the state.
- The Associated Press focused its reporting on the politics of DeSantis’ policies, providing only minimal coverage of the dangerous impact on targeted communities and brief context to critical race theory. In its February 1 reporting, the AP posited that the proposed policies “endear him to the GOP’s conservative base but threaten to alienate independents and moderate voters in both parties who are influential in presidential politics.” The article quoted DeSantis, former President Donald Trump, and Chris Rufo, an anti-civil rights activist whom DeSantis recently appointed to the board of the New College of Florida. While the AP did give minimal coverage to student disapproval of the proposed policies, the coverage held its focus on the GOP’s actions.
In contrast, many Florida news outlets have not only accurately contextualized DeSantis’ extreme proposals in their coverage, but also provided a platform for those who would be directly affected to speak against them -- thereby serving as models for national coverage:
- The Tallahassee Democrat explicitly referred to DeSantis’ “drive to steer Florida’s public colleges and universities to the political right” and reported on the faculty union’s opposition to his plan. The January 31 piece had a section on opposing voices to DeSantis’ plans, including a statement from the United Faculty of Florida (UFF), the union representing 25,000 faculty members at public universities across the state, condemning the “extremist, authoritarian attacks from Florida’s executive and legislative branches." The Tallahassee Democrat published another article on February 3, outlining Rufo’s history of far-right activism and citing Florida State University’s opposition to his anti-DEI campaign.
- The Orlando Weekly published an article focusing on how “DeSantis’ war on ‘woke ideology’ in higher education” is threatening “academic freedom.” The January 19 piece quoted Robert Cassanello, a history professor at the University of Central Florida and the president of the school’s UFF chapter, who told the publication, “Political demagogues in Tallahassee periodically threaten academic freedom and use professors as props in their efforts to fabricate an imagined internal enemy for their political gain.”
- The Tampa Bay Times highlighted Florida’s subpar record in teaching African American history and centered its reporting around educators who will be most impacted by DeSantis’ policies. In the title of the February 6 piece, the Tampa Bay Times noted that DeSantis is attempting to “alter” Black history and explained that “educators and advocates who pushed for the Black history standards say the governor’s policies are threatening to reverse the modest progress they have made.” It also explicitly called out contradictions in DeSantis claiming -- in his defense against accusations that he’s “erasing the state’s Black history” -- that a 1994 law prevents the state from fully banning the teaching of Black history, and it asserted that he has provided no examples for his claim “that some teachers have inserted political beliefs into lessons related to race.”
- NBC Miami spoke to students and faculty at Florida International University, which has a culturally diverse student body and a robust DEI division, to learn what harm DeSantis’ proposed gutting of DEI funding could have on their education and campus. NBC Miami also acknowledged in its February 1 piece a flaw in DeSantis’ argument for cutting funding to diversity, equity, and inclusion programs: “Saving taxpayer money might be one of the governor’s rationales, but the state’s universities reported that collectively, they spend only about one percent of their budgets on DEI initiatives. Those programs get much of their funding from federal money.” The article also quoted a representative from the faculty union who claimed that educational overhaul “feels a lot more like dealing in fear-mongering than dealing with the actual facts on the ground about what we’re doing here at FIU [Florida International University].”
- First Coast News focused its reporting on the harm that DeSantis’ policies could have on jobs in higher education and students' education in a February 1 article. First Coast News, an NBC affiliate, also reached out to the governor’s office to ask for studies or other evidence that reforms to DEI initiatives are needed, but did not receive a response. The outlet, however, spoke to University of North Florida political science professor Nick Seabrook, who said that in many colleges, there is no indication of the problems DeSantis has spoken about. He also cited a recent survey that did not document any frustration with DEI initiatives among the student body.