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Updated Jan 12, 2024, 6:50pm EST
politics

Ron DeSantis, Media Critic

REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
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The News

URBANDALE, Iowa – Three days before the Iowa caucuses, Ron DeSantis, has picked a new foe — the “Praetorian Guard of the conservative media.” It was so thirsty for a Donald Trump win, he said, that it barely bothered to scrutinize him.

“They don’t hold him accountable because they’re worried about losing viewers, and they don’t want to have the ratings go down,” DeSantis told reporters on Friday, after thanking volunteers in a suburban campaign office. “That’s just that’s just the reality. That’s just the truth and I’m not complaining about it.”

The topic had been on his mind. On Thursday night, in another Des Moines suburb, DeSantis told his audience that “there’s as much fake news on the right as there is on the corporate press.” Republicans who’d seen conservative media as “the good guys,” he said, were viewing things too simplistically.

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“It’s all a racket — they’re trying to get clicks, they’re trying to do all this stuff,” DeSantis said. To explain why, he paraphrased the philosopher Eric Hoffer: “Big causes start out as a movement, end up a business and degenerate into a racket. That’s just human nature.”

DeSantis has been critical of Trump and Nikki Haley all week, for avoiding crowd questions and impromptu press gaggles — hallmarks of his Iowa campaign. In Urbandale, asked why his criticisms of Trump weren’t sticking, the Florida governor suggested that pro-Trump outlets weren’t letting them stick.

“Donald Trump is not willing to debate because I think he wants to have kind of these pre-cooked forums like he had on Fox News the other night, where he’s not really asked any difficult questions, or confronted in any meaningful way,” DeSantis said. “You could be running: ‘Hey, he said this about Fauci.’ That could be running and they could be having big debates in the conservative media. That is not happening. People just act like he never said any of this stuff!”

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Know More

This is a role reversal, and it happened in slow motion. Back last March, we reported on Donald Trump’s “soft ban” at Fox News, where he hadn’t been seen on the network for several months — even as its shows prominently featured his opponents, most notably then-rising star Ron DeSantis.

Adding to that drama: Comments from Rupert Murdoch in the now-settled $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems. In court documents, the then-Fox Corporation chair suggested network hosts could have been “stronger in denouncing” Trump’s claims of mass voter fraud in the 2020 election and admitted that the goal was to “make Trump a non person.”

Headlines like the post-midterms “DEFUTURE” at the Murdoch-owned New York Post garnered widespread attention as signs of a potential anti-Trump turn in Fox News coverage for the primaries.

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Trump spent time slamming Murdoch and Fox News during this time period, accusing the media mogul of “aiding & abetting the DESTRUCTION OF AMERICA,” while he propped up more friendly outlets like Newsmax. His staunchest allies got in on the fight too, with Steve Bannon beginning his CPAC speech by criticizing the network and warning that while Murdoch “deemed Trump’s not going to be president,” Trump’s supporters have deemed “that you’re not going to have a network.”

Fast forward to today. Trump still gets in his jabs about Fox News’ coverage (just this week, he accused host Steve Doocy of “desperately trying to save” DeSantis and attacked the network after it featured a CNN poll.) But his scorched earth mentality seems to have quieted down — for now — with the former president sitting down for a town hall with co-moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum in Iowa just this week. That eclipsed the same night’s CNN debate between DeSantis and Nikki Haley, drawing 1.7 million more viewers.

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David And Shelby's View

Before DeSantis entered the race, it wasn’t obvious that Trump would win a battle for conservative media. Few Republican politicians had been more successful at building their own media, quite literally, denying access to some “legacy media” outlets and granting it to new outlets that supported him.

“If they have no access to any conservatives, any Republican elected officials, then they are seen by everybody as what they are, which is Democratic Party communications operatives and activists,” said Christina Pushaw, one of his top communications advisers, in a Sep. 2022 speech. “You do not have to grant them access.”

To some in conservative media, like The Federalist’s editor-in-chief Mollie Hemingway and Iowa-based radio host Steve Deace, it looked like DeSantis was breaking the media structure that broke Trump. With Pushaw’s help, he aggressively courted rising stars on the online right, welcoming movement influencers to Tallahassee, and offering Chaya Raichik “a place to go, to hide, to stay” after The Washington Post revealed that she ran the LibsOfTikTok account on X.

The attention paid off, and DeSantis entered the primary with an amen choir of conservative writers and podcasters.

“This is an opportunity for me to vote for the best candidate for president I’ve ever had the opportunity to,” Deace said at a rally with DeSantis on Thursday night. “Before I got into conservative media, I listened to the same shows you did, I read the same books you did. This is the fulfillment of all of those shows.”

Since 2016, when Trump lost the Iowa caucuses, mainstream media viewership had declined; far more Republicans were getting their news from conservative outlets. But Trump remained popular with many of the same accounts and channels.

The harsh coverage he got on the right after the party’s disappointing midterms gave way to stories about Trump’s legal turmoil. Many of the same outlets, and their audiences, saw the various indictments as plots against him — that changed how the candidate was covered, especially as he jumped up in polls in response. And his increased political relevance helped him score a CNN town hall, which both triggered a revolt within the network and enabled him to taunt DeSantis for ducking appearances at outlets seen as hostile on the right.

In June, DeSantis began doing interviews with “legacy media” outlets he’d cut out for a while, like CNN. He took questions from reporters after his events, and granted exclusive interviews to NBC correspondent Dasha Burns. On Thursday, when he was frustrated with how Trump answered questions about his COVID record in the Fox event, he vented on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“He was able to do that, I guess, on Fox with no pushback, which was really — well, I guess that’s just par for the course at this point,” he said. “I did a town hall with them the day before and I had about, I think, half a dozen left-wing plants.”

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The View From Fox News

After publication, a spokesperson for Fox News pointed to DeSantis’s two interviews with Martha MacCallum and Laura Ingraham, the first of which took place on Friday after the Florida governor made his comments about the network, and to an interview with Sean Hannity on Thursday night, an hour long town hall on Tuesday night, and upcoming appearance on Fox News Sunday this weekend.

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Notable

  • Politico’s Jack Shafer predicted last year that ultimately, Fox News would return to Trump: “Who among us would preclude a reunion in 2024, with Trump pulling Murdoch’s strings once more if Trump wins the presidential nomination?”
  • Semafor’s Benjy Sarlin wrote last May that DeSantis may have taken the wrong lessons from Trump’s combative relationship with the press — namely that the former president was just as aggressive soliciting coverage as he was criticizing it.
  • In the New York times, Ken Bensinger and Nicholas Nehamas traced how the DeSantis campaign “lost the internet.”

Max Tani contributed to this story.

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