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The Florida governor seeks to find his feet on the national stage.͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
 
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May 22, 2023
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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where we keep coming back to Donald Trump.

What is it with the American media and Trump? We have, since the 2016 election, been wringing our hands over how he hacked our airwaves and our attention. Then platforms  — from Facebook to CNN and even to Fox — banned him or stepped back. As Semafor’s Dave Weigel has noticed, even his most extreme policy pronouncements are often (unwisely, we think) mostly ignored.

So why do journalists of all sorts — as you can read in Max and Shelby’s piece below — remain drawn to Trump, in a way they are not to, say, Ron DeSantis — or Joe Biden?

I believe the answer lies in part in an observation Timothy Crouse made of campaign journalism in the 1970s: This is “a business populated largely by shy egomaniacs.”

One thing you can say about Trump: He gives journalists the attention they, shyly, crave. He’s shopping, as Max scoops, for another town hall. He fulminates, attacks, and undermines the profession — but then, at least he’s watching, reading, reminding us that we exist. Sorry, everyone!

Scroll down: Our intel section is full of scoops, including labor stress at Vice and Insider, a big Messenger hire, Republican debate chatter, Cannes murmurs, and Lachlan Murdoch’s new boat.

Max and I will be in Cannes producing a daily newsletter from the annual ad industry blowout next month. Please send shocking ad industry scoops and insights, as well as vital logistical tips and invitations, to justify this hardship posting. And sign up here!

Box Score
Reuters/CARLOS BARRIA

New York: Ad giant GroupM took Twitter off the “high risk” list, citing “material improvements.” —Financial Times

Los Angeles: Spotify is developing tools to use Bill Simmons’ (and other hosts’) artificially-generated voices to target advertising by, for instance, geography — with the hosts’ permission. — Bill Simmons

West Palm Beach: A clash of news ideologies played out last week at The Messenger between two icons of a certain period of my career. The iconic former New York Post (then Politico) politics editor Gregg Birnbaum resigned, complaining of the “rapacious and blind desperate chasing of traffic” orchestrated by Neetzan Zimmerman, once the one-man Gawker traffic engine. — New York Times

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Max Tani & Shelby Talcott

Ron DeSantis shut out the media. That’s changing.

REUTERS/Marco Bello

THE NEWS

The presidential campaign-in-waiting and super PAC supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are trying to warm up the governor’s cold war with the journalists who cover him.

DeSantis had taken apparent pride in a combative operation, led by his former press secretary Christina Pushaw, that sparred with reporters on Twitter and often ignored their inquiries. Pushaw is poised to run his campaign’s rapid response operation.

But after weeks of relentlessly negative coverage of his nascent campaign, his staff have quietly begun the traditional campaign work of providing access for reporters and input for their stories, according to people close to the various DeSantis organizations and half a dozen journalists who have engaged with them.

The new DeSantis Glasnost has been run primarily through the Never Back Down super PAC. Two 2024 national political reporters said the comms team for the campaign-in-waiting has also been informally reaching out to reporters off the record to spin stories, and has begun to invite some down to Florida to meet key staffers.

“I’m so pushing media engagement. He can’t operate like he did in FL,” one person close to DeSantis told Semafor.

“They have been super guarded in Florida, which I think worked very well for them there in a state environment,” the source continued. “It’d be one thing if we were leading or [if] we’re only down five.”

MAX’S VIEW

My colleague Benjy Sarlin wrote recently that DeSantis had taken the lessons of Donald Trump “literally, not seriously.” Trump attacked the press — but also spoke to them constantly. And it’s now become a common refrain among political reporters that even Trump, a notoriously aggressive critic of his press coverage, has been much more accessible and eager to engage with political reporters in recent months than the Florida governor.

DeSantis still has not sat down with any of the non-Fox networks for a major interview in recent months, and often leaves political events without addressing the media. National reporters who had flown from Washington and Miami to cover the governor’s New Hampshire campaign stop were disappointed when he did not take questions from journalists at a diner or during a meeting with state legislators.

His staff have followed his lead enthusiastically, aggressively publicly admonishing reporters who publish critical coverage of the governor. The hardball tactics of the governor’s office already have pushed some national journalists on the beat to be more careful: Two of the 2024 campaign reporters said they don’t send any emails or texts to the governor’s office they wouldn’t think would end up in an angry or mocking tweet from his press staff.

But the pugilistic stance with the press has done the campaign-in-waiting no favors. The governor’s poll numbers have fallen in the months since his reelection. While DeSantis remains in second in most early primary polls, the governor’s absence from the media has created an opening for other media-friendly candidates like Trump and Vivek Ramaswamy to define the narratives in the race.

I caught a glimpse last year of the governor and his allies’ odd policy toward the news media of ignoring first, and complaining later.

In December, we published a straightforward story about DeSantis’ alternative Florida media ecosystem. While the governor’s team was aware of the piece before it was published, we didn’t receive a response or any information or context from DeSantis’ camp. But despite the fact that the piece we wrote wasn’t particularly negative, the governor’s team criticized the piece on Twitter at length after it was published.

Part of the response can be chalked up to the awkward limbo the governor has been in over the past several months. While Trump and other GOP candidates got into the race early, the Florida governor has waited, meaning the bulk of requests have fallen to his gubernatorial communications staff. That staff has been overwhelmed with a deluge of comment requests, and at times, have steered questions to other employees outside his government office. Now that the campaign is beginning in earnest, DeSantis will have a larger and more official 2024 staff to respond to reporters’ queries.

VIEW FROM THE NETWORKS

DeSantis’ team may soon have one advantage over Trump. While Trump’s team has privately made it clear that they viewed the CNN town hall as a success and would welcome others, the networks do not want to repeat CNN’s apparent mistakes, and are only seeking one-on-one live or pre-taped interviews with Trump.

ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT

Some of DeSantis’ allies believe he will thrive by throwing himself into a more hostile press interview environment.

“Let the tiger out of the cage,” the person close to him said. “You can always dial it back in if it’s not working.”

NOTABLE

  • One curveball: Journalists at ABC News have wondered whether DeSantis’ ongoing legal battle with Disney in Florida will impact the outlet’s access with the campaign and treatment by the governor.
  • DeSantis’ combative press aide Christina Pushaw started her Florida career with a cold email to the governor’s office. Under her, “what was once a largely behind-the-scenes communications role has become one of the loudest pro-DeSantis drumbeats on the internet,” the Miami Herald wrote in an early profile of the governor’s most visible public spokesperson.
  • Semafor examined the old DeSantis strategy, which was to deal almost exclusively with a handful of obscure, fawning Florida blogs. Sample headlines: “DeSantis-Endorsed School Board Candidates March to Victory”; and “Casey DeSantis: ‘I Am a Testament That God is Great and God is Good, and Hope is Alive.’”

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Plug

Mo News is part of our newsletter swaps program.

One of the most compelling solo news projects of the last few years is Mo News, which was founded by Mosheh Oinounou during the pandemic. A former top CBS producer, Mosh has built a huge following as an independent news figure, blending old-school standards with an approach that’s native to social video.

He started with an Instagram account — now at 340k followers — before expanding with a daily podcast. Now he’s launching the Mo Newsletter for a daily round-up of the most interesting headlines. You can subscribe here.

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Intel
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Big Zaslav Question: You can get away with either bad ratings or a rolling morale crisis at a television network (see: ABC), but the combination is often fatal. Christiane Amanpour opened a new front on CEO Chris Licht last week when she criticized the network’s Trump town hall. She prompted an outpouring of support from staff at CNN, several of whom posted tweets praising the longtime anchor and her criticism of the network. Two CNNers said there’d been tears in the press shop after weeks of stress and bad headlines.

The unanswered question is where Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, Licht’s boss, stands in all of this. If he’s playing a decisive role in key questions, like casting talent and giving Trump a town hall, it’ll be hard for him to blame Licht for the results.

Regardless of his boss’ feelings or those of his peers within WBD, Licht is trying to do some damage cleanup himself. Over the past several days, he has called media reporters to privately push back against what he sees as unfair coverage of the network. CNN is also working toward finalizing its primetime lineup and its replacement for host Kaitlan Collins in the morning, which one senior official said should be announced within the next two months.

At the top of Friday’s 9 am staff call, Licht told CNN editorial employees he wanted them to feel free to express concerns. “That’s part of the ethos of this company,” he said “Healthy, respectful debate.”

Big in Cannes: Apple, which once prided itself on staying out of the grubby, privacy-infringing advertising biz, aims to make a huge splash at the industry festival on the Cote D’Azur next month, a person familiar with their plans said.

Semafor will be spending almost as much money in Cannes producing a must-read daily newsletter for attendees and other gluttons for punishment. You can sign up here.

The other big splash: Embattled Fox Corp CEO Lachlan Murdoch has a big new boat he’s sailing to Cannes Lions, and family executives and retainers are scrambling for invitations to schmooze in the harbor, a person close to the company said.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Debatable: Some major media outlets have decided to sit out the Republican presidential primary debates. Sources told Semafor that neither Politico nor the New York Times submitted requests for proposals earlier this year to serve as co-hosts, partially out of concern about the high cost of partnering with the RNC and a network on the debate, as well as the risk of brand damage if and when Trump or another candidate decides to make the moderator a target on the debate stage. Multiple people told me that the RNC was impressed by Lester Holt’s pitch for a Republican presidential primary debate, and that members offered praise for how he had conducted previous debates and interviews. Fox News has already locked the first televised contest.

Getting the Message: The Messenger is plunging ahead with 24 new hires over the next two weeks, a spokesperson confirmed. One big name: Politico chief economic correspondent Ben White, who is joining as the publication’s chief Wall Street correspondent.

The site launched to a perplexed and occasionally scornful reception, but a reader could find their way to some scoops, including a leaked White House debt ceiling strategy document, a behind-the-scenes story about Taylor Swift’s dating life, and documents detailing misconduct within the U.S. Marshals Service.

Dark Days in Digital: Vice alerted some recently laid off employees that they would not be paid for this month, and that severance has to be approved by the bankruptcy court. … Insider is preparing for staff to go on strike to protest the company’s recent layoffs. Managers at the digital media organization have been told in recent days to prepare to cancel upcoming meetings with employees should they decide to walk off the job.

— Max

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— Ben

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