DeSantis criticizes traditional media. Fox News doesn’t count. (From 2021)

Emails from Fox to the governor’s office showed how their relationship works.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as seen on the FOX News program of Sean Hannity during a GOP town hall on Cuba broadcast live from Versailles Restaurant on Wednesday, July 21, 2021.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as seen on the FOX News program of Sean Hannity during a GOP town hall on Cuba broadcast live from Versailles Restaurant on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. [ PEDRO PORTAL | El Nuevo Herald ]
Published March 6

Editor’s note: In his recently released book, Gov. Ron DeSantis dedicates significant ink to criticizing the news media. Here is a 2021 story that gives context to how DeSantis leverages his relationship with perhaps the most important conservative media outlet. (You may have seen John Oliver reference it on Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight.)

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 2021, 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.

Get insights into Florida politics

Get insights into Florida politics

Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter

We’ll send you a rundown on local, state and national politics coverage every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

“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.”

Read the full story here.