- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Being the target of a “60 Minutes” investigation is supposed to ruin political careers, not raise them, but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appears to have turned the tables on the venerable network news show.

The Republican governor’s stock has soared as he leads the charge against the 53-year-old CBS News stalwart for a Sunday segment insinuating that he was involved in a pay-to-play scheme to funnel COVID-19 vaccines to the Publix supermarket chain.

Now CBS stands accused of running a deceptively edited, politically motivated hit piece as Florida officials, including Democrats, rally behind the governor, a rising Republican star whose national political prospects have only been bolstered by the backlash.

“I think it helps him tremendously for two reasons,” said Republican strategist Michael McKenna. “First, it shows that he is a target of the media crowd, which legitimizes him among all sorts of people. CBS only sends ‘60 Minutes’ to hit jobs either on the weak or on people whom they fear. The governor is in the second category.”

Instead of dismissing or ignoring the story, Mr. DeSantis has tackled it head-on. He called the segment “horse manure” and “a lie” and blasted network personnel as “smear merchants” running a “fake narrative.”

“Second, the whole episode has shown everyone that he has a considerable amount of grit, which may be the single most important ingredient in political success at this level,” said Mr. McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times and a former Trump White House official.

Media pundits agree, and not just those on the right. Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein called the uproar “a lucky break for his political ambitions,” and CNN political commentator Chris Cillizza said Tuesday that “DeSantis couldn’t have written this script any better.”

“The report, and the backlash, amount to a massive gift to DeSantis as he looks to his reelection race next year and, he hopes, a 2024 run for the Republican presidential nomination,” Mr. Cillizza said.

Conservative media critic Joe Concha roasted “60 Minutes” in a Wednesday column for The Hill headlined “Universally panned hit piece on DeSantis just made him a 2024 frontrunner.”

Axios, meanwhile, called the kerfuffle “a political gift” while accusing Mr. DeSantis of “seizing on a juicy chance to ingratiate himself with the GOP base by bashing the media.”

The “60 Minutes” report linked the state’s decision in January to use Publix to distribute COVID-19 vaccines in Palm Beach County to a $100,000 Publix campaign donation, complete with a press conference ambush after Mr. DeSantis declined to be interviewed for the story.

“Publix, as you know, donated $100,000 to your campaign, and then you rewarded them with the exclusive rights to distribute the vaccination in Palm Beach. How’s that not pay-to-play?” “60 Minutes” correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi asked at the press event.

The governor launched into a detailed description of how two other pharmacies, CVS and Walgreens, received vaccines in December earmarked for long-term care facilities and were unavailable to distribute vaccines to the general public in January.

That made Publix the obvious choice, given that the chain is the largest in the state, with 831 locations.

“So we reached out to other retail pharmacies — Publix, Walmart — obviously CVS and Walgreens had to finish that mission,” Mr. DeSantis said. “And we said, ‘We’re going to use you as soon as you’re done with that.’ For the Publix, they were the first one to raise their hand, said they were ready to go.”

The problem is that none of that made it into the “60 Minutes” piece. Instead, the governor was shown telling Ms. Alfonsi, “It’s wrong, it’s wrong, it’s a fake narrative.”

CBS News responded to the flood of criticism over its heavy editing with two statements. The first said: “As we always do for clarity, 60 MINUTES used the portion of the Governor’s over 2-minute response that directly addressed the question from the correspondent.”

A day later, the network released a lengthier explanation, saying that “60 Minutes” spoke twice with Jared Moskowitz, the state emergency management director, but he declined to be interviewed on camera “until well after our deadline.”

“The idea we ignored their perspective is untrue,” the CBS statement said. “Counter to his statement yesterday, we also spoke on the record with Palm Beach County Mayor David Kerner. For over 50 years, the facts reported by 60 MINUTES have often stirred debate and prompted strong reactions. Our story Sunday night speaks for itself.”

Mr. Moskowitz, a Democrat, swung back Tuesday against the network’s framing of their discussion.

“I did speak with @60Minutes. Never said I didn’t. They were very nice, but I told them that the @publix story was ‘bull[expletive],’” he tweeted. “Walked them through the whole process. The fact that I didn’t sit down on ‘camera’ because I am responding to a 100-year emergency doesn’t change the truth.”

The Poynter Institute, the nonprofit journalism school that runs PolitiFact, weighed in Wednesday by praising “60 Minutes” as the “finest and most respected investigative journalism show in the history of television.”

“But that doesn’t mean it’s infallible,” said Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones. “And a sloppy moment on Sunday’s show is raising serious concerns.”

The pay-to-play allegation was explosive, but the show “really didn’t deliver substantial evidence that DeSantis did any such thing.”

“Yes, Publix donated to DeSantis’ reelection campaign,” Mr. Jones said. “But that is neither illegal nor unusual. Big companies often donate to political campaigns of both major parties. Yet the ‘60 Minutes’ piece used that as the main evidence for its premise that DeSantis did something shady. They really didn’t have much else on that topic.”

As a result, he said, “There was really no there there.”

Why target Mr. DeSantis? Conservatives are quick to point to left-wing media bias.

“Let me speculate as to why some people have it in for Gov. DeSantis,” former Rush Limbaugh producer James Golden said on Newsmax. “They want to take him out early. Gov. DeSantis is a threat because he’s a strong governor in the state of Florida. He kept the state open. Florida’s economy is doing so much better than other places in the country because of his leadership.”

The Washington Times has reached out to CBS for further comment.

Others have asked why the network decided to focus on Mr. DeSantis when two other big-state governors are facing ousters over their responses to COVID-19 outbreaks.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has been threatened with impeachment over his order sending positive patients back into nursing homes, as well as sexual harassment accusations, which he denies. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, also a Democrat, is the subject of a recall effort.

Indeed, the Publix contribution looks meager next to the $23 million donated by Blue Shield to Mr. Newsom over his 16-year political career, including $269,000 to fight the potential recall, as reported last month by Kaiser Health News, citing a California Healthline analysis.

In February, Blue Shield of California entered into a $15 million no-bid contract to take over the state’s vaccination program, according to the report.

Even so, “no 60 Minutes story has described this arrangement as unethical,” Reason editor Robby Soave said Wednesday in an article.

Publix has denied any connection between the campaign contribution and the vaccine rollout. He called the suggestion “absolutely false and offensive.” The company’s PAC contributes to Republicans and Democrats, according to OpenSecrets.

Former Trump White House official Richard Grenell called on the network to “come clean.”

“I think this was not just a mistake. This was a strategy to try to go after DeSantis and throw some mud on him, and CBS needs to come clean,” he said on a podcast interview with American Center for Law and Justice President Jay Sekulow.

“There needs to be consequences for this,” Mr. Grenell said. “We can’t just allow this to linger. We have to fight back.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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