Mainstream-media journalists are completely unprepared to cover a presidential candidate who would use the power of the state against his political enemies, who stokes division with racist conspiracy theories, and who will do anything to entrench one-party control of the government.
Yes, we’ve been through this before. But in 2016, the media at least had the excuse that it was new to them.
Now, after Trump’s disastrous presidential term and his violent attempt to steal another one, newsroom leaders can argue that everyone knows who Trump is, so they don’t need to explain it every time.
But here comes Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Not everybody knows who he is yet. And in some ways, he’s much more dangerous to our democracy than Trump.
He’s an ideologue, not just a narcissist — with a real track record of authoritarian governance. He isn’t just tweeting idle threats, or enriching himself personally. He is already using his position of power to punish his enemies and reward his allies in furtherance of his political goals. His hyperbole and mendacity match and surpass Trump’s. He doesn’t just insult people who disagree with him, he accuses them of wanting to sexualize kindergartners.
He has weaponized cis white grievance. He has turned the schools into the battlefield of his culture wars, signing laws to censor teachers from talking openly about gender identity or America’s real history. He has created his own sham police force to intimidate voters. He has suspended an elected official for political reasons. He threatened to fine the Special Olympics over its COVID-19 vaccination mandate before the 2022 USA games in Orlando. He has impaneled his own redneck grand jury to criminally charge sanctuary cities. He drew a new congressional-district map so that Republicans could win 70 percent of House seats in a state where the voters are almost evenly divided.
A federal judge recently enjoined one of his new laws, calling it an attempt to turn the “First Amendment upside down.” He is following the trail blazed by Victor Orbán, who has turned Hungary into a dictatorship.
DeSantis has taken over all three branches of government in Florida. There is nobody in the state willing and able to hold him accountable. The Miami Herald editorial board calls it “unchecked one-man rule.”
Trump is a Trumpist. But DeSantis is a fascist.
And he is gaming political journalists just like Trump did in 2016.
He is counting on mainstream journalists, once again, being so desperate to cast themselves as “impartial” that they will normalize what is effectively 21st-century American fascism.
DeSantis has learned he can get away with anything, no matter how extreme or how deceitful. Rather than holding him accountable, political reporters praise his strategy.
Sure, our major news organizations run the occasional story pointing out who he really is. But what DeSantis is exploiting is the “both-sides” political media’s inability to sustain outrage against one side, no matter how extremist and authoritarian it becomes.
So the unthinkable – laws that criminalize constitutionally protected speech or punish a company that publicly disagrees with him — is a big deal for a few days, winning him attention. Then it becomes old news.
The outrage ebbs, so by definition it’s not outrageous any more.
And then, for political reporters, it’s back to horserace coverage, where every horse has to be given a fair shot — where politics has no right or wrong, just who’s winning and how they’re doing it.
The Journalistic Challenge
Every time any fact-based, democracy-loving journalist refers to Ron DeSantis, it is their moral obligation to warn readers and viewers that he is an authoritarian, a would-be despot.
Casually noting that he is a front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination – and simply identifying him as conservative, or maybe controversial, is not enough. It’s journalistic malpractice.
Can any reporter honestly say that an introductory clause stating that DeSantis “raised his national profile over his handling of the pandemic and is widely considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate” (Wall Street Journal) or “has relished stoking cultural battles, even going to war with Disney, a storied company with deep ties to his state” (New York Times) is an adequate summary of who he is and how he would govern?
DeSantis is a great topic for news stories. But those stories shouldn’t be about his poll numbers, his “electability,” or how he would fare against Trump, or Biden.
They should be about how some Republican voters are so full of toxic ethno-nationalism that they want a strong leader to avenge them, no matter the consequences.
The question reporters should be pursuing is: How can there not be a super-majority of Americans who want to preserve democracy?
Or maybe there is, and they just aren’t telling us?
Instead of asking voters why they like or dislike DeSantis, they should be asking questions like “What kind of country to you want to live in?”
Plenty of Grist for Boilerplate
Some of the DeSantis coverage in the Washington Post and the New York Times has been replete with incriminating facts – although I would argue that even then, the wildly aberrant nature of what DeSantis is doing doesn’t come through strongly enough, and honest analysis is lamely laundered by being attributed to “Democrats”.
Patricia Mazzei wrote a fabulous story for the New York Times in April, describing the paroxysm that’s seizing Florida.
Neither the headline nor the tone was sufficiently alarming. I’m not saying she should have said flat-out that Florida has become a petri dish for fascism, but calling it “a laboratory of possibility for the political right” seems understated.
She did, however, provide an excellent overview of what DeSantis has been doing:
Discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity prohibited in early elementary school. Math textbooks rejected en masse for what the state called “indoctrination.” Schools and employers limited in what they can teach about racism and other aspects of history. Tenured professors in public universities subjected to new reviews. Abortions banned after 15 weeks. The creation of a law enforcement office to investigate election crimes. A congressional map redrawn to give Republicans an even bigger advantage.
And, perhaps most stunning of all, Disney, long an untouchable corporate giant, stripped of the ability to govern itself for the first time in more than half a century, in retaliation for the company’s opposition to the crackdown on L.G.B.T.Q. conversations with young schoolchildren.
In her analytical paragraph, Mazzei was too blasé and euphemistic, writing that the most likely scenario going forward was “a sustained campaign toward a new, more rigid conservative orthodoxy, one that voters could very well ratify this fall.”
But it’s not “more rigid conservative orthodoxy.” It’s a well-financed fascist cult of personality, as Mazzei herself described:
Mr. DeSantis holds near daily public events in which he bashes President Biden while supporters lavish him with unmitigated praise. He exerts such dominance over Florida Republicans that a candidate for agriculture commissioner dropped out after the governor endorsed his opponent on Twitter. And he has raised more than $100 million, an extraordinary sum, from donors all over the country.
There’s plenty of grist in there for a solid boilerplate paragraph that gives readers at least a hint of how radical and authoritarian DeSantis is. But no. Even in an article Mazzei herself cowrote about a recent DeSantis speech, the governor was left to define himself.
He was introduced as the man “widely seen as the Republican who poses the biggest threat to Donald J. Trump if they both run for president in 2024.” Then came the stenography:
Mr. DeSantis delivered a 40-minute address that had the trappings of a speech by a national candidate: bits of personal biography, blasts at the Biden administration and boasts of his Florida accomplishments, which were heavy on cultural messages.
“We can’t just stand idly by while woke ideology ravages every institution in our society,” Mr. DeSantis proclaimed, citing laws he has signed to bar transgender athletes from girls’ and women’s sports and to ban instruction of gender identity and sexual orientation in early grades.
Although the reporters are unwilling to tell readers who DeSantis really is, they are generous with the strategic analysis. So, from that same story:
That leaves Mr. DeSantis walking a fine line as he tries to build alliances with Mr. Trump’s chosen 2022 candidates while simultaneously conveying the message that the Republican Party does not belong only to the former president.
It’s not that the political media isn’t watching DeSantis closely. In fact, they’re pretty obsessed with him — but more as fanboys than as watchdogs. After the FBI carted away stolen government documents from Trump’s residence, Blake Hounshell wrote in the New York Times: “The political world watches DeSantis’s every move nowadays, and many awaited his reaction to the search with bated breath.”
Where political reporters are most comfortable is doing pure horserace analysis. So in the Washington Post, Aaron Blake ranked “The top 10 Republican presidential candidates for 2024”. DeSantis came in at No. 1:
He’s constantly pushing the envelope by opening new fronts in the culture wars and pushing actual legislation or executive actions to back that up. But more than that, he does so with the kind of actual attention to detail and policy that Trump has long eschewed.
It’s not difficult to see Republicans coming to view DeSantis as a more serious version of Trump — and potentially a more electable one.
The media has also been suckers for DeSantis’s staged events. For instance, when he announced that his new police force had filed criminal voter-fraud charges against a tiny smattering of ex-cons, most reporters wrote it straight.
The real story, however, was how few people his police force found, who they targeted, and most importantly how, as the Miami Herald editorial board explained, the event was “actually about voter intimidation on the eve of an election.”
Even the coverage of DeSantis’s signature piece of fascist legislation is often muted. A recent AP story, for instance, simply reported that DeSantis “signed into law new guidelines Friday involving race-based discussions in businesses and schools as part of his campaign against critical race theory, which he called ‘pernicious’ ideology.”
The law effectively bans open discussion in schools or private businesses of slavery, segregation, lynchings, and modern-day racism as a byproduct of racist conspiracy theories. It constitutes viewpoint-based restriction on private speech, which very clearly violates the First Amendment. And reporters should say so.
Doing it Right
One of the best analyses of DeSantis was in an April article by Zack Beauchamp for Vox, which examined all the parallels between DeSantis and Orbán.
Broadly speaking, both Orbán and DeSantis characterize themselves as standing for ordinary citizens against a corrupt and immoral left-wing cosmopolitan elite. These factions are so powerful, in their telling, that aggressive steps must be taken to defeat their influence and defend traditional values. University professors, the LGBTQ community, “woke” corporations, undocumented immigrants, opposition political parties — these are not merely rivals or constituents in a democratic political system, but threats to a traditional way of life.
In such an existential struggle, the old norms of tolerance and limited government need to be adjusted, tailored to a world where the left controls the commanding heights of culture. Since the left can’t be beaten in that realm, government must be seized and wielded in service of a right-wing cultural agenda.
The Miami Herald editorial board wrote in early August that “DeSantis is a powerful governor testing the boundaries of political norms in an attempt to turn the state into the dream of autocrats — where checks and balances are on paper only.” They wrote that “DeSantis has an unquenchable thirst for political wars and the spotlight. He will stretch and test the boundaries of what’s politically acceptable as much as he can.”
True libertarians are appropriately panicked. Writing in Reason, Jacob Sullum argued that DeSantis’s view of the First Amendment “is not just diametrically wrong but dangerously shortsighted. Depending on the vicissitudes of elections, a government with the powers DeSantis has claimed easily could use them to advance “the far-left woke agenda” that keeps him awake at night.”
Reporters should also be writing about ways to proactively limit the damage a fascist president could do.
I’d like to see more stories like this one from Thor Benson, in Wired, about how authoritarian leaders use mass surveillance to control their citizens. He quotes Neil Richards, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, on the need for legislation that protects the privacy of Americans so existing surveillance mechanisms can no longer be abused.
“We need a robust federal privacy law, we need robust enforcement mechanisms, we need to somehow rein in the commercial surveillance apparatus because that’s a key component in authoritarian regimes. … They co-opt the existing cameras and sensors,” Richards says. “It used to be that it would be a fascist’s dream to have a camera and a speaker in every home, and of course, we did it to ourselves.”
And journalists should be afraid for their own profession. DeSantis banned mainstream-media reporters from attending a Republican summit, only allowing in right-wing outlets that gave him good coverage. His former press secretary viciously harassed journalists for fun. Organizers of a DeSantis event in Ohio demanded that media organizations let them review their footage, among other restrictions. That’s crazy.
News organizations should be prepared to fight back, like the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer did, decrying “policies you’d see in a fascist regime” and running a big gray box in lieu of a photo.
The argument I sometimes hear from establishment media types is that when reporters describe outrageous things a politician has done, that’s enough. They don’t need to suddenly stop using emotionless jargon and both-sides story structures. There’s no need for yelling, readers can contextualize this stuff for themselves, they tell me.
But the fact is that reporters are contextualizing these actions, they’re just doing it with euphemisms, or at the strategic level.
The stakes are so high that reporters must not understate them. That is not the same as screaming. That is doing their job.