The Beltway Press Must Own Its DeSantis Debacle
Reprinted with permission from Press Run
As Covid rages on in Florida, turning the Sunshine State not only into a virus epicenter of the United States but of the entire world, news organizations aren't being honest about the public health crisis under Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. They're not being transparent about how months ago they embraced GOP spin and portrayed the derelict governor as a pandemic star, regurgitating conservative rhetoric about how liberal critics had been proven wrong about DeSantis' wrong-headed policy decisions, which have since propelled Florida into a grave health crisis.
The state recently broke its one-day record for new Covid cases, topping out at 21,000which is as many new cases as the entire country of France tabulates each day. Florida now has more than 12,000 (unvaccinated) people occupying hospital beds battling Covid, another grim benchmark under DeSantis. It's unthinkable that the state has been plunged into public health chaos when a safe vaccine is readily available to all Floridians over the age of 12.
At a time when states are supposed to be emerging from the year-and-a-half pandemic, Florida is shifting into reverse – it recently recorded more coronavirus cases this week than California, Texas, New York and Illinois combined. This all comes 15 months after DeSantis famously, and loudly, declared victory over the pandemic, back when the state was tallying 500 cases a day.
This debacle, and the media's refusal to be transparent about how badly it managed the DeSantis story, says as much about the state of the Beltway media as it does about this burgeoning Covid chapter.
For an industry that demands transparency and accountability from public officials, the political press is terrible at conceding its mistakes, especially when those blunders are documented by liberals. Programmed to fear charges of liberal media bias, the Beltway press often scrambles to correct supposed failures highlighted by conservatives. Hyper-sensitive to bad-faith, right-wing critiques and eager to make nice with those accusers, journalists uniformly look away when confronted by the left with irrefutable evidence of failure. And boy, did they screw up the DeSantis story.
This spring, journalists eagerly touted DeSantis' supposed virus leadership— it was Politico that announced, "How Ron DeSantis Won the Pandemic." This, after 30,000 Floridians had already died from the virus and after the governor foolishly placed one million orders of hydroxychloroquine in tribute to Trump.
"After a year of criticism by health experts, mockery from comedians and blistering critiques from political rivals, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is standing unabashedly tall among the nation's governors on the front lines of the coronavirus fight," CNN cheered, adding that DeSantis remained "defiant and combative." CNN suggested he deserved a star turn because "Florida lands nearly in the middle of all states on a variety of coronavirus metrics" — talk about a low bar.
"Vindication for Ron DeSantis," the Wall Street Journal announced. The New York Times cheered, "In a country just coming out of the morose grip of coronavirus lockdowns, Florida feels unmistakably hot."
Not one of those news outlets, that I've seen or heard, has addressed its glowing DeSantis coverage, or explained to news consumers how and why newsrooms rushed in to paint the Republican as a Covid savior, only to watch the state now grapple with a man-made crisis.
Incredibly, DeSantis is still getting the media's benefit of doubt.
The New York Times on Tuesday published a column from Alex Azar, who served as secretary of health and human services under Trump, praising DeSantis for helping spread a pro-vaccine message to voters. That's an absurd thing to be saying in August 2021. The truth is, DeSantis went AWOL for most of this year on the topic of vaccines.
Watching the Republican Party and Fox News embrace dangerous, anti-vaccine rhetoric, DeSantis didn't want to be out of step as he eyes a possible presidential run in 2024. Instead of acting as the steward of a vulnerable local population, DeSantis abdicated his responsibilities for partisan reasons. Yet today, he receives praise in the pages of the Times.
And when the governor recently took the extraordinary irresponsible move of forbidding local school districts from mandating masks for students if needed to battle local virus surges, CNN ran a pro-GOP chyron while reporting the story: "DeSantis signs executive order giving parents power to choose whether to mask kids at school."
The news outlet most in need of some DeSantis self-reflection is Politico, which essentially doubled as the governor's communications shop last winter and spring, churning out three separate cheerleading pieces for the Florida Republican:
• "Covid wars launch DeSantis into GOP 'top tier'
• "How Ron DeSantis won the pandemic"
• "Ron DeSantis Is Very Pleased With Himself"
That last piece clocked in at 8,000 words (!!), and read like it had been ghost-written by DeSantis' spokesperson. "He was right," read the first sentence, and the glowing profile continued from there, detailing how DeSantis had foiled his critics by producing some sort of miraculous Covid oasis in the Sunshine State. "He is basking in a moment of reassessment of what and how he has done—and also of what it might mean, not just for his and his state's political future but that of the nation."
Everybody makes mistakes. And holding DeSantis up as Republican Covid hero was a doozy. Now the press needs to address that failure.
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