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Broadcasting and narrowcasting in Florida

Last week, Donna Deegan, a Democrat, was elected mayor of Jacksonville, Florida. Various news outlets characterized her victory as an upset—the city has been led by a Republican for twenty-six of the past thirty years—but some local observers didn’t find it so surprising. Steve Schale, a longtime political operative in the state, pointed out, first, that the Jacksonville area is more Democratic than many people think. He also argued that Deegan had unusually broad appeal as a candidate, and was able to withstand right-wing attack ads, due to her background as a longtime anchor on local TV news, which made her a “trusted voice” at the hub of civic life. “Her brand isn’t as a Republican or Democratic candidate,” Schale wrote, “rather, she is Donna Deegan.” In an interview on MSNBC after her victory, Deegan herself seemed to echo that assessment, telling Chris Hayes that “people have known me in this city for a very long time.”

Deegan is not the only Florida politico in the news right now to have come up through local TV in Jacksonville; so did Casey DeSantis, the state’s First Lady, who worked as a reporter and anchor at WJXT and hosted a talk show on First Coast News (where Deegan also worked). Her TV background has been highlighted in recent profiles in major national outlets that have situated her as the key adviser to her husband, Governor Ron DeSantis, a hard-right Republican. A former spokesperson for Ron told the New York Times that Casey is “keenly aware of public-facing events, the news cycle, optics.” (She reportedly once gave her husband lessons on WJXT’s teleprompter.) According to Politico’s Michael Kruse, Casey’s local visibility was an important asset when Ron first ran for a US House seat south of Jacksonville, in 2012. A former aide told Kruse that “Ron even used to joke, they used to go door to door, and people recognized her. I mean, she was on TV there in Jacksonville, and so Ron used to always laugh. ‘People probably think they’re voting for Casey.’” John Delaney, himself a former mayor of Jacksonville, told Kruse that “she was who impressed people really more than him.”

Profiles of Casey DeSantis are surfacing now because Ron DeSantis is courting a much bigger job: president of the United States. After months spent running-without-really-running, he formally launched his campaign this week, in a live Twitter conversation with Elon Musk, the platform’s owner, that started late due to technical bugs and was widely derided by political reporters and pundits as a failure to launch. DeSantis’s choice of Twitter over a more conventional, real-world launch venue unleashed a slew of takes—not least, on the media side of things, about what it means for Twitter’s hard-right shift under Musk, and whether the platform might be displacing Fox News at the center of the conservative media universe.  

These are intriguing questions, even if, at least on the latter front, the answer isn’t clear yet. (For now, I’d just note that no one has ever lost money betting on the resiliency of Fox News, and that any pretender to its audiovisual dominance will probably first need to work out how to host an audio-only livestream.) Perhaps more immediately, the event also raised questions about DeSantis’s media strategy as he runs for president. There are obvious political differences between Deegan running for municipal office off the back of her local TV-news career—and even Casey DeSantis once leveraging hers to help boost her husband’s local ambitions—and Ron DeSantis running in a national-level presidential primary. Nonetheless, taken together, these Florida-politics stories at least gesture toward a useful study in media contrasts: the difference between cultivating mainstream visibility and catering to an already energized section of the base. The difference, in other words, between broadcasting and narrowcasting.

As DeSantis ran for reelection in Florida last year and geared up for a presidential campaign, much ink was spilled on his tendency to shun mainstream news organizations, preferring instead to engage with (sometimes fringy) right-wing outlets, both locally and nationally. (One apparent architect of this strategy: Casey DeSantis, described last year by the Times Magazine as a “careful student of the conservative media” who encouraged her husband to appear regularly with the Fox hosts Mark Levin and Sean Hannity.) DeSantis and his staff haven’t just refused to talk with mainstream outlets; they have slow-walked public-records requests, shut reporters out from press conferences, and aggressively gone after them on social media. Similarly to Donald Trump, DeSantis has cultivated a performed antagonism toward the mainstream press. In fact, he has gone even further than Trump, who constantly dishes to reporters from mainstream outlets even as he decries their employers as Fake news!

Antagonism does still constitute a form of relationship with the mainstream press, which has afforded DeSantis huge national-level coverage despite his aggression. His decision to launch on Twitter can be read, at least in part, as an extension of this dynamic: many reporters remain hooked on the platform and treat it as an outsize story in its own right, driving greater buzz around a presidential launch that, in a more conventional forum, might more quickly have been forgotten as a formality. Mainstream-media mockery of the event is unlikely to dent DeSantis among Republican primary voters; indeed, he can point to it as proof of his anti-media case. Still, the technical glitches were embarrassing. And the direct audience for the event—while too big, evidently, for Twitter to handle—was small by traditional-media standards. As various observers have noted, when DeSantis eventually started talking, his message was duly narrow—couched not in the sweeping rhetoric of a unifying vision, but in a language of terminally-online grievance politics understood only by the sort of people likely to have tuned in. 

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Some observers have expressed skepticism that DeSantis, or any other Republican candidate for that matter, will be able to avoid more traditional engagement with the mainstream media if they want to be president. Given how naked DeSantis seems to be about political calculations, it’s not hard to imagine that he might, if successful in the primary, seek to soften his edges and broaden his outreach, including through more conventional media sit-downs. (Semafor reported last weekend on some tentative early steps in such a direction, with his staff quietly starting “the traditional campaign work of providing access for reporters and input for their stories.”) Still, as I wrote last year, any such strategy will face self-imposed limitations: DeSantis has made contempt for the mainstream press so central to his persona that he’ll likely find it hard to back off, even if he wants to. For now, he seems happy to stay in his silo: since his Twitter launch, he has hopped from friendly interviewer to friendly interviewer across the right-wing media pond.

Local TV news—which often flies under the radar of national media-watchers—is sometimes portrayed as the polar opposite of this sort of silo: inclusive, apolitical, reliant on high levels of broad-based community trust in an otherwise polarized media environment. This, of course, is an over-generalization. As an anchor in Jacksonville, Casey DeSantis would openly flaunt her right-wing politics; according to a profile in Vanity Fair, when the arts editor of a local alt-weekly came on her show to talk about a metal band, she ripped up his paper on air in protest of a headline about the GOP. When I last wrote about local TV news in this newsletter, it was in the context of the Arizona gubernatorial bid of Kari Lake, a hard-line election denier whose politics had started to lurch to the right while she was still working as an anchor on a Phoenix TV station. (Like Casey DeSantis, Lake once expressed distaste for the local alt-weekly scene.)

When I wrote about Lake, it was to show how a local news anchor might easily leverage the visibility and trust that comes with the role into a political career—and, if so inclined, subvert that trust into an anti-media message built on big lies. Ron DeSantis, of course, was never a news anchor—even if he was once adjacent to that world, and drew some political advantages from it himself—and, again, he is now not only running for national-level office, but must first navigate a primary whose dynamics will be determined by committed partisans. Still, there is a common lesson lurking here about who you need to talk to, and through what type of medium, to succeed in politics at any level, whatever your message. Deegan clearly understood it in Jacksonville; Trump, too, understands it, albeit with extremely different results. It’s not clear that DeSantis does. People may see a lot of him in the mainstream media. But do they really know him?

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR, Graph Massara suggests seven ways in which newsrooms could better approach their coverage of transgender people. “Transgender people are increasingly in the news, and not always in a good way,” Massara writes. “While there have been some great stories on the subject, many publications have made serious missteps—not just errors in balance or accuracy, but lapses in news judgment.”
  • In an interview with Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo, Jimmy Finkelstein hit back at early critics of The Messenger, his new news site. Finkelstein insisted that the site has revenue plans beyond programmatic advertising; that it is not “center right” but “right down the middle”; and that it is already decreasing its publication of aggregated clickbait—a key source of the early skepticism. In short, Finkelstein said, “it won’t be like the Daily Mail.”
  • Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, protests swelled, and police in many cities attacked journalists covering them. In one memorable incident in DC, officers from the US Park Police used a shield and a baton to strike Tim Myers and Amelia Brace, two Australian TV journalists, as they broadcast live. The Interior Department’s inspector general has now ruled that the officers used excessive force; the Times has more.
  • This week, The Intercept’s Nick Turse published an investigation—based on interviews and newly assembled archival documents—showing that Henry Kissinger “is responsible for even more civilian deaths in Cambodia than was previously known.” (Kissinger turns a hundred tomorrow.) Among other revelations, Turse reports that US Army officials tried to blame reporters after their own soldiers were caught looting a Cambodian town in 1970.
  • And Slate’s Luke Winkie praised the remarkably positive portrayal of journalism in Nintendo’s new Zelda video game, which features a plucky newspaper called the Lucky Clover Gazette. “The more you explore, the more you’ll find folks leafing through a cracked-open copy of the Gazette, issuing vehemently pro–First Amendment pronouncements to anyone within earshot,” Winkie writes.

ICYMI: The Messenger is a news startup, but it feels like a blast from the past

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

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