Every weekend, we look at the news stories shaping the conversations in Florida’s business, public policy, and political worlds. Here’s this weekend’s Capitolist wrap-up, which we call “The Wrap.”
The Associated Press and DeSantis’s communications staff got into an ill-advised slap fight, everyone loses
Earlier this week, long-time Associated Press reporter Brendan Farrington published a story under the headline “DeSantis top donor invests in COVID drug governor promotes.” The story was a political hit job from the very opening line. Farrington implied, perhaps without even meaning to, that Governor Ron DeSantis‘s opposition to mask mandates led to higher COVID-19 infection rates that in turn is benefiting one of his donors who is invested in the pharmaceutical treatment known as Regeneron. Farrington took the trouble to point out that DeSantis is now criss-crossing the state pushing the treatment, leaving readers to infer that their governor’s efforts are disingenuously calculated to line the pockets of his donor at the expense of COVID-19 victims.
It’s an incredibly insulting and dumb story because the “facts” underpinning it are misleading and unfair to DeSantis. But it’s also one of those utterly inevitable yarns that some partisan media outlet was going to write about sooner or later, because it enables cheap, partisan political jabs and equally juicy clickbait.
Enter DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw, whose job it is to defend the governor and accurately communicate his messaging on a wide range of matters. Pushaw, as she should have, reacted negatively to the AP story. But she ultimately pushed back so aggressively against Farrington on social media that it prompted several Tallahassee insiders to send a flurry of text messages alerting me to the brewing social media firestorm, which I monitored with professional interest and no small amount of partisan sympathy for Pushaw and DeSantis.
The conclusion among many political insiders is that while the AP story was, in fact, dumb, Pushaw went too far with some of the tweets she fired at Farrington, including one she let loose in the heat of battle where she used the phrase: “Drag them.” She later deleted the errant post after she realized the context was being misconstrued by some as a call for violence against Farrington.
I had to look it up myself, but in modern social media parlance, the phrase “drag them” merely means to “drag someone through the dirt with insults or facts.” A simple Google search yields no shortage of similar results, all of them relatively tame, and notably, none of them appear to be a call for violence.
But now Farrington’s bosses at the Associated Press are doubling down, writing a letter to DeSantis claiming that Pushaw “threatened” Farrington. The laughable letter even quotes Pushaw, including the aforementioned “drag them” quote, claiming that she aimed to “activate an online mob to attack” Farrington. The letter also called out the terrifying threat to Farrington that Pushaw threatened to put Farrington “on blast,” and then urged her followers to “light them up.”
Yes, you read that correctly. The Associated Press has written a letter complaining to the governor of Florida that one of his staffers threatened to put their reporter “on blast.” This is the actual state of media discourse today.
Look, if there are people who interpreted Pushaw’s tweet as a call for violence, and then subsequently answered that call, those people deserve to be banned from Twitter at a minimum and prosecuted if their actions warrant it. But the Associated Press, and Farrington himself, are now playing the victim card, as though their own dumb story shouldn’t share at least part of the blame for the ensuing uproar.
Maybe the account is factual on a base level, and we should expect nothing less from Farrington, who’s an experienced, ethical reporter. I’ll note here for those that don’t know him that Farrington is a friend of mine, a guy I know to be fair-minded and reasonable. He isn’t really the archetypical partisan villain most DeSantis supporters might imagine, but rather, a lovable fuzzball of a human being who’s managed to survive the print journalism purges over the last two decades largely because of his professionalism, fairness, and vast network of reliable sources.
I don’t know if the original idea for the story was Farrington’s or not, but he and his AP editors bear some responsibility for pouncing on this kind of stupid partisan narrative when it’s more the kind of political chum better left to liberal media outlets like Mother Jones, Daily Kos (is that still a thing?), or The Daily Beast.
My reading of the story is that Farrington did his best to include mitigating information favorable to DeSantis, including pointing out that (a) Regeneron works, and (b) Democrat donors are also heavily invested in it, but those aren’t the sort of things that Farrington could lead his story with because that would be far too boring and undercut the clickbait potential. Once the decision was made to write the story, any good reporter like Farrington is going to assemble the most compelling version possible with the available facts.
It just shouldn’t have been an AP story in the first place.
And so we turn to Pushaw, who is also a friend. She has been raising eyebrows with her aggressive handling of the Florida and national media since her arrival in Tallahassee earlier this year. But detractors would do well to remember that many of the members of Florida’s press corps, or what’s left of it, have a history of whining and stomping their feet any time they’re on the receiving end of aggressive pushback from the communications teams of Republican governors.
How do I know? I experienced it first hand in the opening months of then-Governor Rick Scott’s administration, when, as his communications director, I was invited to a “summit” with a frustrated cadre of Florida’s capitol press corps reporters, some of whom had grown impatient with Scott’s approach to handling the media, while others in attendance that day were there just out of curiosity. The meeting was peaceful, but the daily combat continued, growing caustic enough that the battle was ultimately chronicled in the national media.
Ironically, it was Brendan Farrington himself who wrote an AP story about how we used Twitter way back in 2011 to “put on blast” (my words, not Farrington’s) anything we thought was unfair media coverage. Back then, Twitter was still an emerging technology, but it was already clear even that early that it was rapidly devolving into a bifurcated communications platform: on one side, newsmakers, news reporters, and respectable individuals responding in real-time to news and events. On the other side: a radioactive cesspool of trolls. From my perspective, it grew difficult to tell the difference between the trolls and the reporters.
Pushaw would do well to learn the lesson I learned a decade ago: that she has a powerful platform and therefore an awesome responsibility as a spokeswoman representing Florida’s governor. Her social media posts carry weight, and there are real consequences linked to the things she says on Twitter – or anywhere else.
The Associated Press, like Pushaw, also has a powerful platform that can lend major credibility to narratives that would be better left to partisan media outlets. Their letter, and the subsequent stories about it, appears to be attention-seeking, an attempt at milking the situation and trying to inflate it into something more than it deserves to be.
But the media is going to keep writing stupid stories about DeSantis. And this story, as lousy and unfair as it was, just wasn’t worth the energy that Pushaw put into discrediting it. Her aggression gave the AP the opportunity to claim victim status, a tactical error that will only attract more partisan hackery from other journalists who will be all too eager to stand in Farrington’s shoes and bask in the attention.
Pushaw would be wise to dial back some of the aggression and remember the lesson I learned a decade ago: most voters aren’t on Twitter. Attempting decisive combat with journalists there just isn’t worth the trouble, because they’ll just keep baiting you while other “journalists” join the fray. Before long, you’re mired in a Twitter cesspool and you’ll never get the last word. It’s much better to invest that energy in outlets where the payoff is worthwhile.