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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' mishandling of Covid could be tied to Fox News

The governor's Covid response is being shaped by a Fox News obsession.
Photo illustration: Ron DeSantis speaking and blue circles behind him reveal Covid-19 spores.
Gov. Ron DeSantis appears to have a troublingly chummy relationship with Fox News. Anjali Nair / MSNBC; AP; Getty

Under Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ watch, the state has seen the largest explosion in coronavirus cases of any state in the nation this summer, with horrifying reports of packed hospitals that look far worse than they did even at the beginning of the pandemic.

In light of Florida’s fiasco, a new exposé by the Tampa Bay Times about DeSantis’ fixation on appearing on Fox News has some statistics that help explain the crisis — and condemn DeSantis’ handling of it.

The report, based on four months of emails that capture the intimate relationship between Fox News and DeSantis, found that his commitment to appearing on the network seems to rival, if not overshadow, his basic duties of governance:

In the first six months of 2021, DeSantis had scheduled as many appearances with top Fox hosts [Sean] Hannity (8 times), Tucker Carlson (6) and Laura Ingraham (7) as he had meetings with his lieutenant governor, Jeanette Nuñez (7), according to his public calendar.Meanwhile, the governor has not met one-on-one this year with Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, the state’s top public health official, his schedules show.

These numbers would be striking at any time, but during a once-in-a-lifetime-style public health crisis, they’re head-spinning. The picture that emerges is one in which the governor’s right-wing optics operation is an unusual point of obsession for him. And it raises the possibility that his agenda to constantly stand out on television as a conservative rebel may be shaping his lax Covid-19 policies more than public health guidance.

When asked for comment on the meetings numbers, a spokesperson for DeSantis’ office pointed out that the governor spent a great deal of time with Nuñez during his response to the collapse of the Surfside condominium and on events related to Cuba’s protests this summer. But notably, these examples are responses to unexpected emergencies and don’t speak to how his scheduled meetings provide an insight into his priorities. The spokesperson also made no mention of a meeting with the surgeon general or to any meetings with Nuñez that focused on Covid-19.

The Tampa Bay Times report reveals a troublingly chummy relationship between Fox and DeSantis. Fox producers tell DeSantis’ team that they see him as “the future of the party”; DeSantis grants exclusive access at times to Fox, sometimes at orchestrated events like a Covid-19 vaccine photo-op that papers over how his rollout was poorly executed. DeSantis sometimes shows up several days in a row on the network and seems to prefer hosts who don’t challenge him, according to the report.

There are two disconcerting dynamics here. One is that DeSantis — the clear White House front-runner in 2024 if Trump doesn’t run — is able to wield Fox as a megaphone and as a propaganda operation to cover up his horrific mishandling of the state’s public health guidance.

Currently, more than 50 children on average are being hospitalized in Florida every day; the state has the highest per capita rates of adult and pediatric hospitalizations in the country; and reports from hospitals indicate that, likely due to the delta variant, people are showing up in worse shape than ever before.

But on Fox, DeSantis gets to control the narrative — downplay or ignore bad news, and draw attention to anything that looks like a win. Fox has shown charts provided by his office without acknowledging their source, per the Tampa Bay Times report.

The other worrying dynamic here is that DeSantis’ appearances on Fox incentivize him to take extreme stances against Covid-19 restrictions to help him achieve firebrand status and draw more attention from the Republican base. So it’s not just that he won’t be held accountable on Fox for the tragic costs of his negligence, it’s that he’s being rewarded, at least in terms of attention, for taking extremist positions like attacking school districts for defying his ban on masks in schools; blocking companies from requiring proof of vaccination; and downplaying the efficacy of the vaccine, in part by focusing more aggressively on monoclonal antibody treatment, despite the fact that hospitalizations are being driven by people who aren't vaccinated.

As I’ve written before, the Republican presidential primary is already underway, and front-runners are looking to outflank each other as true conservatives by taking increasingly extreme positions on bucking Covid-19 restrictions. DeSantis’ relationship with Fox News is a particularly insidious part of that race for attention — and Floridians are paying the price for it.