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Feb. 16, 2023, 10:15 a.m.
Audience & Social

Ron DeSantis is weaponizing partisan media — and weakening independent sources of news

“Part of what makes DeSantis different is how he has paired his efforts to elevate partisan media with public policies meant to destabilize independent media.”

Last summer, six days after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis suspended Tampa prosecutor Andrew Warren, one of the governor’s top aides drafted a public records request seeking copies of emails from Warren’s time as state attorney for the 13th Circuit.

DeSantis communications director Taryn Fenske sent the proposed request to a writer at a newly launched conservative news website — who then submitted it to the State Attorney’s Office in his own name.

It was, records show, just the beginning of a collaboration between the DeSantis administration and The Florida Standard, which would go on to publish a story alleging that Warren might have misused taxpayer resources — a story that DeSantis staffers then promoted to others as if it were an independent piece of journalism.

The episode is a case study in how DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president, has cultivated a network of sympathetic conservative news organizations that he and his strategists use to promote the governor — and attack his opponents.

And DeSantis is building this cheerleading machine even as he uses his powers as governor to weaken legitimate journalism.

Separate records show, for instance, that the DeSantis administration was directly involved in recent legislation that allowed cities, counties, and towns to stop publishing legal notices in local newspapers. Attorneys for the governor are arguing in courts that DeSantis does not always need to comply with Florida’s public-records laws. And DeSantis hinted last week that he wants to make it easier to sue news organizations for libel and defamation — an idea the governor has been quietly working on for at least a year.

The governor’s efforts to prop up supplicant sources of news — while trying to destabilize and delegitimize independent ones — make for a dangerous combination, said Michael Barfield, the director of public access at the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a watchdog group that supports transparent government and investigative journalism.

“This is what state-run media looks like,” Barfield said. “Russia, China, and Venezuela use it as a tool to control the message. The strategy has far-reaching and negative implications for freedom of the press and democracy. History is full of painful lessons when the government interferes with and manipulates a free and independent press.”

“We’ll put a nail in the coffin”

Ron DeSantis suspended Andrew Warren on August 4, removing an independently elected prosecutor who had vowed not to criminally punish women seeking abortions or doctors providing them.

The following 24 hours were a frantic period for the governor’s press staff, which stoked the story online while fielding media inquiries from around the world. But things began to calm down a bit after the governor’s office arranged to have Susan Lopez — the attorney DeSantis chose to replace Warren — hire one of DeSantis’ former communications directors to handle media for the State Attorney’s Office.

“Fred Piccolo is now doing their comms,” Taryn Fenske, DeSantis’ current communications director, wrote in an August 5 text message to two other staffers in the DeSantis press shop. The text messages were unearthed during a trial over the suspension. “So I’m going to call him and have him get counter stories out there.”

Then Fenske added, “Will’s team can focus on this one, we’ll put a nail in the coffin.”

It’s not clear to whom Fenske was referring when she wrote the name “Will.” Fenske did not respond to a request for comment.

But two days later, a conservative podcaster and social media personality named Will Witt announced the launch of The Florida Standard, a conservative website covering Florida politics.

“The media landscape of today is nothing more than the corrupt propaganda of the ruling class,” Witt wrote in an August 7 post headlined “Welcome to The Florida Standard.”

“We at The Florida Standard are here to change that,” Witt wrote. “Whether it’s in our daily email updates, our breaking news texts, or anything else we do, our commitment will never be to a political party or hidden agendas.”

The Florida Standard took an immediate interest in Andrew Warren. One of the site’s first news pieces was a one-sided story recapping DeSantis’s decision to suspend Warren.

But the publication was about to do more digging. Three days later, on August 10, emails obtained through a public-records request show that Fenske, DeSantis’ communications director, contacted Josh Miller, a writer at the Florida Standard, with a proposed public-records request.

“Here’s a draft example of a records request if helpful!” Fenske wrote.

The proposed request sought emails from the 13th Circuit State Attorney’s Office that included any of several key phrases, such as “Florida Democratic Party,” “American Civil Liberties Union,” and “fair and just prosecutions,” a reference to an advocacy group that Warren had worked with. The request also asked for work-related communications Warren had sent or received from a personal Gmail account.

Fifteen minutes later, Miller submitted the request in his own name, according to separate records obtained from the State Attorney’s Office. Miller copied Fenske’s draft verbatim — right down to repeating a typo in which Fenske had flubbed the acronym for the ACLU by writing “ALCU.”

The Florida Standard ultimately abandoned the request, according to the State Attorney’s Office. Instead, on the morning of August 17 — the same morning Warren announced that he was suing DeSantis on First Amendment grounds — the publication phoned in a much narrower records request. The more targeted request sought copies of press releases issued by the State Attorney’s Office about work that Warren, a Democrat, had done in conjunction with a task force created by the Florida Democratic Party.

The State Attorney’s Office jumped on it: Records show the agency emailed three press releases to Miller, the Florida Standard writer, at 9:32 that morning.

Eight minutes later, according to a timestamp, The Florida Standard published a story under the headline “Andrew Warren Allegedly Used Taxpayer Money for Activist Agenda.” The story said Warren used his office to “liaise” with the Florida Democratic Party, and that he spent taxpayer money on “events related to his activism.”

The Florida Standard’s story cited a “high-level source in the State Attorney’s Office,” as well as records that The Florida Standard said it had obtained via public-records requests — including the press releases that the State Attorney’s Office had emailed over minutes earlier.

But records show that The Florida Standard may have had those press releases even before the State Attorney’s Office sent them.

As part of its story, the publication included a link to a PDF of its documents — the three press releases issued by the State Attorney’s Office, plus a pair of releases from the Florida Democratic Party and a news story from another publication. The metadata on that PDF indicates that it was created by a scanner in the Governor’s Office — before the State Attorney’s Office sent the press releases to the Florida Standard.

Neither Witt, The Florida Standard’s editor-in-chief, nor Miller, the writer of the Andrew Warren story, responded to a request for comment.

As soon as The Florida Standard’s story was published, Fenske began sending it to other reporters, who were flooding the governor’s office with requests for comment in response to Warren’s First Amendment lawsuit.

Records from the governor’s office show Fenske sent the piece to at least five other news outlets — television stations in Tampa and Tallahassee, plus Fox News, the Washington Times and the Daily Mail. She never betrayed a hint that the governor’s office helped orchestrate the story.

“For background, saw this story earlier this morning and thought it might be of interest to you,” Fenske wrote in an email to Forrest Saunders, a television reporter in Tallahassee who had asked the governor’s press office for a response to Warren’s lawsuit.

Weaponizing the “friendlys”

It’s been well-documented how deliberately DeSantis has cultivated an ecosystem of right-wing writers, social-media influencers and other marketers as he prepares for a possible Republican primary showdown against former President Donald Trump.

In a lengthy profile last year, The New Yorker detailed the governor’s staff assiduously courting producers at Fox News. Semafor reported in December that DeSantis is “building his own media,” citing his work with outlets like The Florida Standard. The Daily Beast reported last month that DeSantis’s team has been recruiting “a secret Twitter army of far-right influencers.”

Records from the governor’s office show his press staff has separate distribution lists of conservative outlets whom it urges to do everything from writing mundane stories about Florida tourism numbers to pushing back against critical coverage in mainstream outlets like The Miami Herald. Staffers in the governor’s press office have referred to them as “friendlys,” according to text messages from the Andrew Warren litigation.

But the Warren attack reveals how the governor weaponizes this network, too.

DeSantis also seems particularly keen on establishing The Florida Standard as a go-to place for Florida political news. The day after the site formally launched, DeSantis gave a 20-minute interview to Witt, The Florida Standard editor-in-chief. “Good luck to you,” DeSantis said at the end of the cozy sit-down inside the Governor’s Mansion. “Welcome to Florida.”

In late August of last year, the governor’s press office asked The Florida Standard to interview DeSantis’ “chief resilience officer.” The publication obliged, and produced a story promoting DeSantis administration grants that help harden coastal areas against rising seas.

And last fall, when The Florida Standard published a list of the state’s “most influential lobbyists,” more than half a dozen DeSantis office and campaign staffers promoted it on social media.

“Truth”

DeSantis is not, of course, the first Florida politician to leak materials to favored reporters or give access to supportive publications. But part of what makes DeSantis different is how he has paired his efforts to elevate partisan media with public policies meant to destabilize independent media.

This goes far beyond the “cut them off” strategy that former DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw once boasted about.

For instance, for years, Florida had a law on the books that required local governments to buy advertisements in area newspapers to alert the public of impending government actions — if, say, a city commission was going to raise property taxes or rezone farmland for a subdivision. These legal notices became an important source of revenue for newspapers, particularly as other types of advertising, like classifieds, shriveled.

Some Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee tried for years to cut newspapers out of the legal notice process and allow governments to publish them on other websites instead. But the effort always failed, amid intense lobbying by the newspaper industry.

But then DeSantis got involved. Records show the DeSantis administration personally pushed legislation that passed last year allowing local governments to stop publishing legal notices in newspapers. The law is now reverberating across the industry; Sarasota County commissioners announced just last month that they would stop publishing many legal notices in papers like the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

DeSantis relished signing this bill. Emails show his press staff pitched stories to conservative outlets about how the governor eliminated “a state-mandated subsidy to prop up a dying industry.”

DeSantis is not done. Just this week, the governor hosted a media event where he attacked “legacy media” that engages in “partisan activism” and suggested that he might lobby the Florida Legislature to pass a law this session making it easier for people to sue news organizations on claims of libel or defamation. It’s an idea that DeSantis has been working on since at least late 2021.

The Florida governor and likely presidential candidate made the comments while sitting at a mock TV anchor desk, in front of a backdrop emblazoned with the word “Truth.”

Jason Garcia is a longtime business and government reporter in Florida. He previously worked for the Orlando Sentinel and Florida Trend magazine. This piece is republished from his newsletter, “Seeking Rents,” which examines the ways businesses influence public policy across the state. Subscribe here.

POSTED     Feb. 16, 2023, 10:15 a.m.
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