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Ron DeSantis' blocking of legacy media coverage is dangerous for democracy

Republicans are increasingly seeking sympathetic media at their events. That's bad for accountability.
Image: Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Turning Point U.S.A Student Action Summit at the Tampa Convention Center on July 22.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

The GOP often describes itself as at war with “mainstream media.” Now it looks like some Republicans are going one step further and shutting out the full media from GOP events altogether. It’s yet another blow to the increasingly beleaguered notion that citizens across the political spectrum can occupy a shared reality.

For the first time in the seven-year history of the annual Sunshine Summit in Florida, the conference restricted media access to the event last weekend, according to Politico. It specifically blocked mainstream media outlets based on the rationale that they’re congenitally anti-conservative.

“We in the state of Florida are not going to allow legacy media outlets to be involved in our primaries,” DeSantis said in his opening remarks. “I’m not going to have a bunch of left-wing media people asking our candidates gotcha questions.”

It makes it far harder for politicians to be held accountable by the media if they only choose to be around outlets that are sympathetic.

The conference, previously recorded by C-SPAN, was one of natural interest to national media — it included debates and speeches from state Republican leaders, primary candidates and conservative pundits in a hugely influential battleground state. But according to The Washington Post, for at least some portions of the summit, only right-wing media outlets, such as The Floridian, were permitted to attend, and reporters from legacy media outlets were forced to try to obtain recordings from those allowed inside.

The Post described it as part of a broader pattern on the right, emulated by Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, to lock media outlets out of rallies and meet demands from Republican political candidates in Pennsylvania and Missouri to include only conservative media or moderators at primary debates.

This all comes after the Republican National Committee voted to withdraw from the Commission on Presidential Debates, the bipartisan platform that has hosted the debates for decades, based on the unpersuasive claim that it exhibits anti-Republican bias.

What’s going on? There are a number of explanations for this tendency. Trump taught the Republican Party that rhetorical attacks on mainstream media tend to do well with the base — and DeSantis knew this when he made his announcement. Political polarization has achieved such extremes that politicians view media outlets of opposing ideological persuasions as purely propagandistic. And right-wing hyper-partisan media is actually finally robust enough, after decades of development, to be able to independently cover and convey news to a mass audience of conservative citizens without the involvement of mainstream media at all.

It’s an unhealthy trend because it makes it far harder for politicians to be held accountable by the media if they only choose to be around outlets that are sympathetic, or outright propagandistic on their behalf.

For example, if only conservative media outlets can closely observe and question Republican politicians during primary debates, there’s a lower chance that a reporter will identify an example of a politician flip-flopping on an issue later on during the general election season. There’s also a lower chance that an extremist statement will be documented and shared with the public, because ideologically sympathetic reporters want to shield the Republican Party. And uniformly right-wing media at a debate will incentivize some candidates to jockey extra aggressively for the most conservative positions because they know it could drive the headlines and more favorable coverage in hyper-ideological outlets. Allowing a wider range of media outlets that span the ideological spectrum can act as a bulwark against these dynamics.

Our media landscape is becoming more polarized in a manner that mirrors general political polarization across the country. But when politicians refuse to engage with media on the other side, it’s only going to make the problem worse.