DeSantis Didn’t Win the Pandemic, After All

How the Florida governor took a premature victory lap—and how traditional media helped him.

Do we all remember this piece in Politico titled “How DeSantis Won the Pandemic?”

Ron DeSantis wants you to know how well he has done.

“We’ve had tremendous success,” the Republican governor of Florida said recently at a vaccine site in Sumterville in the central part of the state when I caught up with him while reporting for this week’s POLITICO Magazine Friday Cover, which we published early for Nightly readers.

“Really good numbers,” he said in front of the pharmacy in the back of a Jacksonville Walgreens.

Sure, it hedges a bit later:

Democrats across the state say this “victory lap” is not only unseemly but premature. They might be right. This past year, after all, has been wrenching. Approximately 2 million Floridians have tested positive for the coronavirus and more than 32,000 have died. The disbursement of unemployment benefits has been stingy and uneven. The vaccine rollout has been pockmarked by tales of lengthy waits, balky websites and numerous charges of socioeconomic inequities and political favoritism. And the pandemic of course is not over. Ominous variants lurk.

But after 12 months in which he was pilloried as a reckless executive driven more by ideology than science, dogged by images of crowded beaches and bars and derided as “DuhSantis,” “DeathSantis” and “DeSatan,” Florida has fared no worse, and in some ways better, than many other states — including its big-state peers.

But the cautious bit didn’t prevent the headline from flying far and wide across the country, contrasting Florida’s supposedly successful laissez-faire approach positively with the more cautious efforts in bluer states. In California a recall effort is underway against governor Gavin Newsom, fueled in part by conservative fury that the state didn’t take adopt more Florida-style response to the pandemic.

But now, just a few months later, who could have predicted?

1 in 5 new COVID cases last week came from Florida, health official says

Four states accounted for 40% of new cases last week, with one in five coming from Florida.

The other states with the highest number of new cases were Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Nevada.

It was not, of course, difficult to predict at all.

I’ve argued here before that failures of framing in the traditional media are now far less important than the disinformation being peddled on social media. The fact that the top posts on Facebook are consistently from right-wing disinformation channels matters a great deal more to public policy than whether Politico says something dumb and irresponsible. Biden reiterated the point yesterday, much to the amusing consternation of the rightwing disinformation racket itself and its enablers at Facebook.

But traditional media does still set narratives among more informed members of the electorate. How many times do reporters need to be played for fools by too-good-to-be-true rightwing narratives before a greater degree of skepticism starts to set in?

People’s lives are at stake. Republican elected officials and Fox News hosts aren’t going to tell their voters and audiences the truth about the stakes of this virus—thereby putting not only them but the rest of the world in danger of increased transmission and further variants. They’re willing to get their own supporters killed out of cowardice and for marginal, short-term political advantage.

The last thing responsible journalists should be doing is helping them along.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.