Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is signaling plans to ramp up his attack on the news industry ahead of his likely 2024 run for president.
DeSantis on Tuesday held a roundtable discussion with media libel law experts and critics on a stage mirroring a typical cable-news show, with the GOP governor setting behind a desk with a screen behind him with the word “truth” displayed prominently.
Among those with him were a conservative lawyer who represents Dominion Voting Systems Inc. in a defamation suit against former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani and former President Donald Trump’s attorney Sidney Powell. Others on the panel include Nick Sandmann, a former Kentucky high school student who sued media companies over a viral social media video and a libertarian journalist.
“The idea that they would create narratives that are contrary to discovering facts, I don’t know that was the standard,” DeSantis said. “Now it seems you pursue the narrative, you’re trying to advance the narrative and trying to get the clicks, and the fact checking and contrary facts has just fallen by the wayside.”
DeSantis has long had a contentious relationship with the media since he became Florida governor in 2019. He rarely gives interviews to major media outlets and regularly criticizes outlets like CNN and his former press secretary, Christina Pushaw, was well-known for singling out reporters on Twitter for ridicule. The Republican governor, who’s widely believed to be staging a campaign to unseat Democrat President Joe Biden in 2024, even unsuccessfully pushed the Legislature to approve a law challenging First Amendment protections during last year’s legislative session, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
DeSantis’ criticism of the media is similar to those of former President Donald Trump, who regularly condemned media outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times. In 2018, Trump also suggested that he’d try to change libel laws to make it easier to sue news organizations.
During Tuesday’s discussion, DeSantis didn’t detail any specific laws he wanted enacted but pressed Florida legislators to “protect” Floridians.
“When the media attacks me, I have a platform to fight back. When they attack everyday citizens, these individuals don’t have the adequate recourses to fight back,” he said. “It would contribute to an increase in ethics in the media and everything if they knew that if you smeared somebody, it’s false and you didn’t do your homework then you have to be held accountable for that.”
Carson Holloway, a scholar from the conservative think tank the Claremont Institute, also said during the discussion that the Supreme Court’s legal precedents that govern most defamation lawsuits makes libel claims against media companies by public figures nearly impossible to win.
“This is distorting our politics in fundamental ways,” Holloway said. “It really discombobulates our ability to govern ourselves.”
Sandmann, who became embroiled in a social media firestorm after a video was posted of him smiling in front of a Native American beating a drum at the National Mall, said he thought nothing of the video until he saw it on social media as he boarded a bus back to Kentucky. National media outlets reported that the video showed Sandmann blocking the path of Native American, but Sandmann, who was wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat, claimed he was trying to stay motionless to calm the situation at the event.
“In my case I didn’t have a reputation to ruin — I hadn’t started any sort of professional career and I haven’t even started my life,” Sandmann said. “But they predetermined how that would happen.”
Libertarian journalist Michael C. Moynihan told Sandmann his “death sentence” was because he wore a MAGA hat indicating his support for Trump.
Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, said during a phone interview that the Ivy League-educated DeSantis is smart enough to understand why the country’s forefathers believed the press was so important.
“It’s the only profession protected by the Constitution,” Petersen said. “Why is he so hot and bothered over this?”
Libby Locke, who was one of the lawyers representing Dominion Voting Systems, said the media is no longer doing the job that the public expects of it, especially with the growing use of anonymous sources. The voting systems company sued some of Trump’s biggest supporters, including MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, for defamation after the defendants allegedly made false statements about Dominion.
“The thumb is on the scale in favor of the press,” Locke said. “Media defense lawyers come in and say First Amendment, and judges get very nervous about applying the law in a way that is favorable or even handed to a defamation plaintiff, and lives are ruined as a result.”