Rebekah Jones’ firing is the COVID clickbait the media dreams of – but it’s all fake

by | May 20, 2020


UPDATE: Within an hour after we first published this story, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis unloaded on Rebekah Jones in a press conference with Vice President Mike Pence. The reporter attempted to ask Pence about Jones’ case, and DeSantis jumped in and underscored all the points we made below. Here’s the link to the video (go to the 12 minute mark of the video). 

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UPDATE 2: This article has been updated to correct our assertion that Rebekah Jones earned a Ph.D in geography at Florida State. She pursued the degree but never completed it. 


Dozens of media outlets, both in Florida and nationally, published the sensational story of Rebekah Jones, a state Department of Health employee who was fired by the administration of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Trump ally, after – she says – she refused to manipulate data to support the governor’s plan to reopen the state.

But a deeper look at the underlying facts expose a less sensational, yet all-too-common narrative: a media feeding frenzy caused by a deep-seated desire to report on scandal and cover-ups, which Rebekah Jones’ claims delivered – if only they were true.

They are not.

Let’s pick through the individual pieces of wreckage from this crashed-and-burned narrative one by one:

Claim #1: Rebekah Jones was the “architect” of Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard.

The truth: Jones was more like the drywall hanger of the dashboard rather than the “architect.” The dashboard was built on the same visual mapping tool that Johns Hopkins University made famous at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. In fact, Florida’s tool looks extremely similar. That’s because Johns Hopkins University is not the “architect” of the dashboard, either. The tool is actually built not on any of Florida’s many data servers, but using ready-made modules from a subscription service called ArcGIS. Jones’ job was to load data into those modules and decide how it appeared to visitors.

  • Who got it right? The Tampa Bay Times described her as a “top Florida Department of Health data manager” and never ran with the “architect” claim. They even correctly pointed out that it was Jones herself who claimed to have built the site “from scratch.”

Claim #2: Rebekah Jones was a coronavirus “scientist” 

The truth: Several media outlets (including this one) published the claim that she holds a doctorate degree in geography. It’s an easy mistake to make when looking at her resume. But a careful reading of it indicates she has not completed that portion of her education and apparently dropped out of the program in 2018:

 

Click to enlarge the image.

So, her skill set, as applicable to COVID-19, was in mapping data, as we explained previously. That’s it. No special skills in epidemiology, biology, or even public health. Depending on the narrative a media outlet wants to convey, using the term “scientist” in headlines about coronavirus carries with it a very specific connotation, leading readers to believe Jones was involved in the front lines of coronavirus research. If media outlets insist on describing her as a “scientist,” they owe their readers a fuller explanation of her role, and should, at most, describe her as a “data scientist,” (Edit: or more accurately, an “environment scientist” or even more accurately, as her job title suggestions, an “Environmental Health Program Consultant”) though even those could be misleading and would still be misconstrued for political gain. Her job as it pertains to coronavirus was to display data using mapping software – data obtained by the Department of Health’s actual epidemiologists. She was not involved in the evaluation of that data or the recommendation to health experts as to a course of action.

Media outlets describing her as a “scientist” are doing so to give her more credibility regarding the state’s COVID-19 policy, where no such credibility exists.

 

Claim #3: Rebekah Jones was asked to manipulate data to support the governor’s plan to reopen Florida

The truth: Jones was asked to temporarily disable the ability to export data from the dashboard so that it could be verified that the data matched other sources.

We previously gave credit to the Tampa Bay Times for accurately describing Jones’ role in managing the COVID-19 dashboard. They also accurately describe events leading to Jones termination. Don’t misunderstand – the Times is still guilty of trying to make Jones a martyr. Take a look at how they describe what happened:

[On May 4th] the [EventDate] column vanished from the “Person Cases” data, which lists anonymized records for every confirmed case in Florida. The Palm Beach Post reported the disappearance the next day, May 5.

The Tampa Bay Times automatically checks for changes in the data and archives new updates. Shortly before 10:12 a.m on May 4., data still included the EventDate field, showing records with listed dates that people reported symptoms as early as January 1. By 3:02 p.m., the column was gone.

For much of the next day, May 5, the column was either missing or empty, with every row listing “None.” Finally, it returned shortly before 8:02 p.m.

If you’re struggling to see what all the fuss is about, you’re not alone. By the Times own account, a single column of data became temporarily unavailable for a day and a half. The only other item worthy of note in the Times’ story is that the state’s official epidemiologist (i.e. an actual medical scientist, not a data mapper, like Jones) asked to have the ability to export data from the dashboard temporarily disabled while health officials verify that the dates match other official sources.

This is critical. The Tampa Bay Times had the full explanation for why the data was temporarily unavailable, but they and other media outlets decided to run with “coronavirus conspiracy” instead. In fact, the Times headline claims Jones was asked to “delete” data. No where in the story itself does the word “delete” appear. It’s another clickbait headline.

Claim #4: Rebekah Jones was fired because she refused to comply with orders to hide the truth about COVID-19

The truth: The idea that Jones is somehow a martyr for truth about coronavirus and a victim of a DeSantis administration cover up is a narrative too many media outlets were willing to jump on.

She was fired for insubordination, according to the DeSantis Administration:

“Rebekah Jones exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the department, including her unilateral decisions to modify the department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors,” DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Ferre said in a statement. “The blatant disrespect for the professionals who were working around the clock to provide the important information for the COVID-19 website was harmful to the team.”

Jones is no stranger to insubordination. In 2016, she was arrested on the campus of her employer, Louisiana State University, for refusing to obey the orders of a police officer:

On June 13, 26-year-old University staff member Rebekah Jones was booked on one count of battery on a police officer, one count of remaining after forbidden and two counts of resisting arrest, Scott said. Scott said officers arrived at the Sea Grant building when Jones refused to leave at the request of LSU Human Resources. Scott said Jones initiated physical contact against two LSUPD officers while resisting arrest and officers were forced to subdue her.

It’s not clear why LSU’s Human Resources department asked one of their own staff members to leave the area.

Jones also has an extensive criminal history in Leon County, where she’s been arrested and charged with three felonies, including one for robbery, and a handful of misdemeanor cases including “sexual cyberstalking,” a case where she created a website and used it to sexually harass her ex-boyfriend. The website has been taken down, but images from the case exist in Leon County court records.

Most of the charges filed against her came after she was hired by the Department of Health, so they would not have turned up in any background check.

The bottom line: Rebekah Jones was fired for performance issues, not for “refusing to manipulate data.” And her extensive criminal history, which predates her employment in Florida, lends credence to the DeSantis administration that she was just a troublesome employee who is now disgruntled and trying to get media attention about her firing. The easiest way to get media attention right now is to claim a Republican elected official is involved in a conspiracy to cover up COVID-19 data detrimental to reopening the state economy.

The media outlets listed above will not issue retractions. They will double down on the idea that DeSantis’s administration is withholding / manipulating / deleting / altering data. That, too is totally false. But mark these words, the embarrassment of touting Rebekah Jones as their coronavirus martyr will quickly fade into the mainstream media memory hole.

 

21 Comments

  1. Stephen Crawford

    Very well written article, thanks

    Reply
  2. Harry

    How refreshing, Real Reporting!

    Reply
  3. Adam

    Well that’s a solid hit piece, considering she doesn’t actually have a criminal record; all of the cases that the author highlights were nolle prossed or no info’ed, and wouldn’t be admissible in any court, except the court of public opinion. This was 100% a character hit piece.

    I’m not arguing the merits of her claims, in fact I find it dubious that such a verifiable set of data sourced from other, local, data sources is subject to willful modification, given the political backlash it would bring but everything from “she isn’t really a scientist” to “she isn’t the “architect” of the dashboard” is just kind of a farce intended to distract from the issue at hand.

    Either she was told to modify data or she wasn’t, and the article was pretty short on verifiable facts there, just conclusory opinions. But hey, I might have been asking too much from an “insider” news aggregation blog purporting an “authentic conservative voice” written by a guy who runs a PR shop for conservative politicians. Bound to be viewpoint neutral, right?

    Reply
  4. Truth

    The only thing wrong in this story is that she has no PhD so can not be refereed to as Dr. Jones. Best check that out.

    Reply
  5. Anonymous

    Only thing worth reading on this page. Thanks

    Reply
  6. MC Wells

    “But mark these words, the embarrassment of touting Rebekah Jones as their coronavirus martyr will quickly fade into the mainstream media memory hole.”… just like grabbing womens’ pussies, mocking disabled people, assaulting women, commenting sexually on one’s daughter’s looks, standing in the middle of the road and shooting someone and not being held accountable, taking a drug to increase its sales numbers…. yeah, media sucks sometimes, as do people.

    Reply
  7. Bill F

    “Either she was told to modify data or she wasn’t, and the article was pretty short on verifiable facts there, just conclusory opinions. But hey, I might have been asking too much from an “insider” news aggregation blog purporting an “authentic conservative voice” written by a guy who runs a PR shop for conservative politicians. Bound to be viewpoint neutral, right?”

    Ditto

    Reply
  8. Doug

    I think the point here is that the agency FDOH was trying to reconcile the online dashboard reporting with the PDF download reporting. I don’t think there was a request to change the data. That said, she was no scientist rather a low level position tasked with maintenance of a canned ESRI dashboard.

    Reply
  9. Tsar Bomba

    Top 5 Most Biased News Outlets in Florida

    5.) The Capitolist
    They’re a center-right outlet that doesn’t deny it. They provide their readers with what they want, and they even have a satirical section that attempts to add a few laughs (see below).

    https://theflorida.report/top-5-most-biased-news-outlets-in-florida.html

    “Center-right” my eye. Just another bog in the right-wing fever swamps.

    Imagine blindly accepting DeKlantis’s “explanation.” Hyper-credulity and “journalism” never mix, dear boy.

    Reply
  10. Hal

    Utter bs. Extensive criminal record? A charge does not constitute a criminal record. As already noted a hit piece. This alone tells you all you need to know about this site.

    Reply
  11. bluejeanne

    I work in a police department. A criminal charge always goes along with a person’s “record” for life. It doesn’t make any difference if it was followed-up or the case dropped or if the adjudication was guilty or not guilty.

    Reply
  12. Adam

    Yes yes yes, of course an arrest will appear in NCIC/FCIC until the end of time. That’s not the point I was making, and if you’re truly associated with a police department, you should know better. Arrests happen all the time, millions of people who’ve never ever been convicted of a crime have, at some point, been arrested on probable cause by some officer in the field who felt it was the appropriate thing to do at the time.

    That doesn’t make someone a criminal. If you recall back to your 7th grade civics class, we don’t convict people of crimes until they’ve had their day in court. “Innocent until proven guilty” as the saying goes. The point being made here is that all of these “felonies” the author is claiming in his fervor to prove he lacks journalistic integrity were summarily dropped by the State following the initial arrest. To the point, the State determined that there was not enough evidence to support a conviction for wrongdoing. So they didn’t formally “charge” her. A sworn complaint / arrest mittimus is not a formal charge (some misdemeanor exceptions excluded).

    At the end of the day, she does not have a *criminal* record, as she has never been convicted of a crime. The author in this article either lacks an understanding of these basic principles of criminal justice, or he lacks journalistic integrity; I go with the latter. This is a hit piece.

    Reply
  13. James Lindsay

    So funny to see the anti-DeSantis, anti-Trump haters trying to make a purse out of this sow’s ear! She “didn’t really have a criminal record” (she’s just a trouble-maker who repeatedly gets into trouble with the law); “it’s not clear she wasn’t asked to manipulate data” (scientists asked her to hold off on reporting data that needed to be verified); “Orange man bad;” etc.

    Reply
  14. Ted

    If you have a PhD in a broad range of the hard sciences – including geography – then, yes, you are a research scientist. What, do you think “scientist” is only in the medical field? You have to wear a lab coat and work with test tubes? Get a clue.

    Also, building a website from scratch means you use a wide variety of tools to do that. Not that you write the tools and their code. That would be absurd. Like saying you didn’t really build a house unless you crafted your own hammer, cut down your own trees and planed them, sourced every material personally. Yes, Brian, you can build a website “from scratch” using pre-existing templates. That’s how websites work.

    Reply
  15. Trugh

    But Ted, she doesn’t have a PhD nor did she write a single line of code as she claimed for a canned dashboard app. As far as getting a clue, maybe the biggest one is no PhD

    Reply
  16. Anonymous

    How much you think Desanitis paid for this hit piece?

    Reply
  17. Scott Brownstein

    All I had to do is see her picture and estimate her age. I have built sites for many years. She was no web architect and if she was, she would have nothing to do with the real data. Just like Dr. Bright. Make a lot of noise and the media and left wing politicians will pay your freight and make you a star…till you crash and burn.

    DeSantis is doing a pretty good job and the left can’t stand it.

    Reply
  18. Knowledgeable Engineer

    Author’s argument that she wasn’t the “architect” of Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard because the ArcGIS software tool was used when building it is preposterous. That’s like saying that an engineer didn’t really design an aircraft carrier because the engineer used a CAD-CAM software tool such as AutoCAD. Rebekah Jones absolutely did design that system “from scratch”. This article is nothing more than a “fake news” hit piece.

    Reply
  19. Trout

    You must be knowledgeable about something other than ESRI software, regardless of her skills, creating a reporting dashboard with that software is something that my folks can do in two hours, tops. The salary for her position is about 45k per year, hardly that of anyone that has valuable programming skills.

    Reply
  20. Ted

    Trout = Troll. Can’t win an argument, but can make up stuff. Yes, she has a PhD in geography. Yes, building a website and dashboard using tools does make her the architect of that website. Yes, her position paid more than $45k. No, no one claimed she had programming skills, which wouldn’t be part of her job description anyway.

    Are you Russian Troll, Trout? Or home-grown?

    Reply
    • Trout

      No PhD, Ted. None, zip, zero another lie. She managed to get booted from FSU, yep banned from campus before she finished. But anyone who can spell Google with two fingers can figure all that out.

      Reply

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