Indications are that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s 2024 presidential campaign could be over soon. The most recent polls show him way behind Donald Trump, falling into third place in first-in-the-nation Iowa and being a non-factor in New Hampshire.
But if that’s the case, DeSantis (R) is apparently going to go down swinging.
Not so much at the guy he’s actually trying to beat, mind you, but at Fox News and conservative media.
DeSantis has now on multiple occasions effectively accused Fox of paying obeisance to Trump or at least giving him a pass, but his latest broadside was particularly stark.
“He’s got basically a Praetorian Guard of the conservative media — Fox News, the websites, all this stuff,” DeSantis said Friday in Des Moines. “They just don’t hold him accountable, because they’re worried about losing viewers and they don’t want to have the ratings go down. And that’s just the reality.”
every word DeSantis says here about Trump and Fox News is true pic.twitter.com/JvFCDCKaT3
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 12, 2024
DeSantis a day earlier suggested that Fox made his own town hall on the cable news outlet this week tougher than Trump’s (which Fox held during a debate featuring DeSantis and Nikki Haley, drawing more TV viewers than the debate). During an MSNBC interview, DeSantis dinged Fox for not pushing back on Trump’s false claims about their relative records on the coronavirus pandemic.
“So it’s massive, massive gaslighting,” DeSantis said. “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.”
When MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” hosts suggested that the Trump town hall was basically a campaign ad, DeSantis seemed to agree.
The governor added that Trump “knows he can get away with that type of gaslighting in that venue.”
Fox News did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Its town hall hosts did ask Trump about whether political violence is ever okay and about his previous promises of retribution, which Trump backed off somewhat (for now). And a voter questioned whether Trump’s attacks on former aides would make it hard to hire staff. But as The Washington Post’s Philip Bump put it, Fox essentially provided “a safe space in which Trump could operate.”
Two points. One is that DeSantis is on pretty firm ground in making such an allegation. The other is that it’s a bit rich from a guy who has himself treated Trump with kid gloves — for similar reasons, it would seem.
You need only take a brief look at Fox’s $787.5 million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems to get a sense for how the network feels pressured to cater to Trump.
Discovery in the case showed that many at Fox privately worried that questioning or pushing back on Trump’s false stolen-election claims after the 2020 presidential race would alienate viewers:
One former reporter testified that she was told such skeptical coverage was not “respecting our audience.” Internal emails showed executives worrying that fact-checking Trump was “bad for business.”“The audience feels like we crapped on [them] and we have damaged their trust and belief in us,” a top executive said after a fact-checking segment, adding: “We can fix this but we cannot smirk at our viewers any longer.”Executives talked about how firing specific employees would placate Trump. They admitted privately that the stolen-election theories were crazy and baseless but allowed them to be aired — and often credulously.They worried repeatedly and explicitly about Trump directing his supporters to lower-rated Newsmax. “We don’t want to antagonize Trump further …” then-Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch said in one missive.An executive cited Newsmax and a conspiracy-theory website, saying, “This type of conspiratorial reporting might be exactly what the disgruntled FNC viewer is looking for.”
The picture was one of Fox, which has a reputation for driving conservative thought and being a powerful media force, instead being in the thrall of Trump. And the coverage certainly reflected that, so much so that Fox chose to air bogus information that ultimately cost it $787.5 million.
But when it comes to giving Trump a pass for such things (and plenty of other false and extreme rhetoric), Fox certainly has plenty of company in the modern conservative movement — including DeSantis.
The Florida governor wasn’t exactly shouting from the rooftops about Trump’s false stolen-election claims. He instead spent well more than a year afterward punting on whether the election results were legitimate.
Even once DeSantis launched his 2024 campaign, he declined to say much of anything that could alienate Trump’s supporters. He and his fellow GOP primary candidates instead made pragmatic arguments about how Trump’s liabilities (like his legal jeopardy) could hurt the Republican Party.
Actually passing judgment on Trump’s conduct and dinging his character was a no-go zone. Virtually all rebukes had to be qualified. As recently as Wednesday’s debate, DeSantis disagreed with Trump talking about terminating parts of the Constitution, but he also downplayed Trump’s comment as “word vomit” rather than a real threat.
Just as Fox clearly worried about alienating Trump-supporting viewers and acted accordingly, DeSantis has clearly worried about alienating Trump-supporting voters and acted accordingly.
And even in the same MSNBC interview on Wednesday, DeSantis played the game.
“Isn’t it also gaslighting, though, not to really talk about the threat of a Trump presidency, a second one?” host Mika Brzezinski asked him. “Is Donald Trump a threat to our democracy?”
DeSantis talked around the question, ultimately landing on the idea that Trump’s legal jeopardy was a headache for the GOP.
DeSantis’s new comments are still significant; it’s not nothing for a big-name Republican to target Fox News and other conservative media like this. He’s got a political future to mind, and alienating the likes of Fox can come at a price.
But if Republicans want to complain about their allies going out of their way to toe Trump’s line, a whole lot of factors have played into that. And at the top of that list is their own long-standing reluctance to put themselves on the line to try to steer things in a different direction.