Early in Florida’s vaccine rollout, during a period marked by confusion and images of seniors in long lines desperate for a shot, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office devised a pitch to air a more flattering view. In mid-January, his staff took the idea to Fox News.
The timing was perfect. Producers for Fox & Friends, the network’s top-rated cable morning news show, were already inquiring about DeSantis’ availability.
A plan came together in a flurry of emails and phone calls over several days. DeSantis’ team provided a senior, a location and the talking points. Fox News would bring the cameras and its audience. No other media would be allowed in.
When Fox & Friends viewers tuned in Jan. 22, they heard applause live from St. Petersburg as a 100-year-old World War II veteran received his first coronavirus vaccine. Standing nearby, DeSantis cracked jokes about the senior’s good looks and boasted that Florida was leading the country in vaccinating older residents.
“I honestly think he could host the show with the chops we saw from him at the vaccine site,” a Fox producer wrote afterward in an email to Meredith Beatrice, DeSantis’ deputy director for communications at the time.
The details of this staged news event were captured in four months of emails between Fox and DeSantis’ office, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times through a records request. The correspondences, which totaled 1,250 pages, lay bare how DeSantis has wielded the country’s largest conservative megaphone and show a striking effort by Fox to inflate the Republican’s profile.
From the week of the 2020 election through February, the network asked DeSantis to appear on its airwaves 113 times, or nearly once a day. Sometimes, the requests came in bunches — four, five, even six emails in a matter of hours from producers who punctuated their overtures with flattery. (“The governor spoke wonderfully at CPAC,” one producer wrote in March.)
There are few surprises when DeSantis goes live with Fox. “Exclusive” events like Jan. 22 are carefully crafted with guidance from DeSantis’ team. Topics, talking points and even graphics are shared in advance.
Once, a Fox producer offered to let DeSantis pick the subject matter if he agreed to come on.
By turning to DeSantis to fill the many hours of airtime once devoted to former President Donald Trump, Fox has made Florida’s hard-charging leader one of the country’s most recognizable Republicans. That has given DeSantis a leg up on others who may seek the party’s nomination for president in 2024. A recent nationwide poll of Republican voters put DeSantis atop the field if Trump doesn’t run again. No other prospective candidate was close.
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“He’s been given the first Fox audition for 2024, which also means he gets to set the bar,” said Adam Goodman, a veteran Republican media strategist. “That means all the other competitors, when they have their chance to have their day on Fox, there’s a measuring stick that they’re going to be up against, and that’s the governor of Florida.”
DeSantis’ office declined to make someone available for an interview about his media strategy. In a statement, spokesperson Taryn Fenske said: “While other networks were busy lauding states whose governors have either retired in disgrace or are undergoing a recall, Fox News was willing to hear our perspective and report the facts.”
Through a spokesperson, Fox News said the network “works to secure interviews daily with headliners across the political spectrum which is a basic journalism practice at all news organizations.”
It is not clear which came first after Trump lost — Fox’s focus on DeSantis or his meteoric rise. But internally, Fox producers acknowledge, in no uncertain terms, just how the network views DeSantis.
One producer told DeSantis’ team it was the mission of Fox’s midday host, Martha MacCallum, to “look forward and really spotlight the STARS of the GOP” and “she named Gov. DeSantis as one.”
Another put it this way in an email to Beatrice: “We see him as the future of the party.”
‘Blurring the lines’
Fox News owns a significant space in DeSantis’ swift political ascent. It was through Fox that Trump discovered DeSantis — a little-known congressman from the Jacksonville suburbs who became one of the president’s fiercest allies. An endorsement for governor soon followed, paving the way for DeSantis’ takeover of Tallahassee.
DeSantis disappeared from Fox’s airwaves after entering the governor’s office in 2019, a tactical pivot from national politics. His absence didn’t go unnoticed. Early in 2021, a producer for Fox’s best-known personality, Sean Hannity, pointed out DeSantis wasn’t making his regular appearances on the show.
“Hoping we can get him on soon and there isn’t any issue!” the producer wrote.
Since Trump’s defeat, DeSantis is a Fox regular once more. In the first six months of 2021, DeSantis had scheduled as many appearances with top Fox hosts 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.
In that time, he has also granted interviews to Fox’s growing competitors, Newsmax and One America News Network, and, during hurricane season, the Weather Channel. While some Republicans venture onto CNN and MSNBC, DeSantis has not.
The competition within Fox to land DeSantis is stiff. After one producer was told DeSantis wasn’t available that week, she quickly replied: “He made time for Tucker last night!”
DeSantis is selective. He favors the friendlier hosts and larger reach of Fox’s morning show and primetime lineup. Dozens of appeals by Fox’s newsier daytime programs and lesser-watched weekend shows were turned down. After four appearances in five days on opinion-themed Fox shows, DeSantis received requests to go one-on-one with Chris Wallace, the Fox News Sunday host known for his probing questions, and with Bret Baier, the network’s well-regarded chief political correspondent.
“I will let you know as soon as possible,” Beatrice told Baier’s producer.
“We appreciate the request and will get back to you,” press secretary Cody McCloud responded to Wallace’s team.
The email chains ended there. DeSantis didn’t go on either program.
Representatives for Fox have publicly made clear that the network’s morning show and nighttime political commentators are not held to the same standards as the news division. DeSantis has used this to his advantage.
One night in January, Fox scheduled DeSantis to discuss COVID-19 as Maria Bartiromo guest-hosted evening Fox News Primetime. Hours beforehand, Beatrice sent Fox a graphic that showed Florida favorably compared to California and New York — “locked down states,” as they were called on the chart — and encouraged the network to use it.
Fox did. In the middle of Bartiromo’s interview with DeSantis, a graphic appeared on the screen with the same title and even the colors chosen to depict each state. There was no indication from the broadcast that the chart had originated in the governor’s office.
In a statement sent by a spokesperson, Fox News likened this episode and other similar examples to “pre-interviews with guests to ensure preparedness for the segment.”
“This is a common practice in television and is not unique to FOX News,” the statement said.
A.J. Bauer, a University of Alabama communications professor, has studied Fox’s tendencies for years. He said when it comes to DeSantis, Fox is “blurring the lines” that once divided newsmakers the network covers and contributors to its shows. Such treatment became the norm with Trump, but it’s surprising that a first-term governor could command that kind of power over Fox, Bauer said.
“Whatever tenuous wall existed between Fox News and DeSantis, it seems to have deteriorated where you have people on both sides sitting in a digital room together pitching programming ideas,” Bauer said. “That seems to be new.”
Those pitches have touched on all facets of the Republican’s agenda — curbing vote-by-mail, anti-riot measures, fighting Big Tech. But, at least until this most recent deadly surge in coronavirus hospitalizations, their collaboration most often centered on Florida’s less restrictive pandemic response.
Fox needed to give its viewers a “shot in the arm” after Trump’s loss, said Goodman, the strategist, and Florida’s winter recovery was the serum that got everyone hooked again.
“The most popular book in America right now, politically, is the Florida story,” Goodman said, “and the one authoring it is the governor of the state.”
Indeed, emails sent from Fox to DeSantis are peppered with suggestions that Florida was a success that needed to be shared.
In one email, a producer told Beatrice that MacCallum was “passionate” about the number of children stuck in virtual classrooms amid the pandemic. She added that her boss was “moved by (DeSantis’) comments that doing this is one of the biggest health policy blunders in decades!”
Only Fox is allowed
First Amendment advocates were alarmed in May when DeSantis barred all media, except Fox & Friends, from covering the signing of a controversial new voting bill. Some said it was unconstitutional.
At the time, a spokesperson for Fox denied the network had anything to do with the arrangement.
In the emails from earlier this year, Fox & Friends producers were eager to play ball when DeSantis’ team pitched similar “exclusives.”
In February, Beatrice gave conservative media organizations — including Fox News, Newsmax, the New York Post, the National Review, Breitbart, The Daily Wire and The Blaze — advance notice that DeSantis was about to unveil a plan to go after tech companies for deplatforming certain people. Other outlets were left in the dark for hours.
“Feel free to carry this announcement live on your feeds,” Beatrice wrote. It was one of several times Beatrice sent advance word to conservative outlets and not the Florida press corps.
Fox isn’t the only national outlet to receive preferential treatment from DeSantis. Newsmax, a network that advertises itself as more conservative than Fox, was granted an exclusive town hall with DeSantis in The Villages, the Trump-loving Central Florida retirement community.
Beatrice, now with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, did not respond to multiple messages and phone calls seeking comment. DeSantis’ office would not say if it operates a separate press list for conservative media outlets, but Fenske noted DeSantis has held 700 public events since taking office, where he often takes questions from reporters.
The frequent appearances on the network have become fodder for Democratic rivals hoping to oust DeSantis in 2022. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat running for governor, recently wrote on Twitter that DeSantis “acts more like the governor of Fox News than the governor of Florida.”
Another rival, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, ripped DeSantis for performing “a meaningless campaign stunt” for Fox viewers the morning after a condo collapse in Surfside killed 98 people. DeSantis went to Pensacola that day to see off law enforcement agents headed to the U.S.-Mexico border. He went on Fox immediately after.
Fenske brushed off the comments as “the same as someone who works for Pepsi saying Coca-Cola tastes bad and is an inferior product.”
DeSantis has similarly dismissed criticism over these “exclusives,” noting Fox’s live feed is “broadcast to millions of people.” Most of those viewers, though, are not in Florida, which has given rise to suggestions that the intended target is future presidential primary voters.
Many would-be voters are already responding. A political committee run by DeSantis received 135 out-of-state contributions during his first two years in office.
Now his war chest is up to $48 million. And more than 10,000 donations this year originated from outside Florida.