A "half-baked conspiracy theory." "Big corporate media smearing for profit." "Hit them back right between the eyes."
This was Gov. Ron DeSantis this week responding to a report broadcast Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes." The report ran 13 minutes, examining the early weeks of the governor's vaccination strategy, including distributing vaccines to Publix pharmacies.
The segment inferred a connection between campaign donations from Publix to DeSantis' political action committee and the decision to use Publix to give vaccinations to seniors.
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"I told them that this public narrative was malarkey and they still went with it," said Florida Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz Wednesday at a news conference alongside the governor. Moskowitz is a Democrat. DeSantis is a Republican.
The governor has been aggressive in defending his pandemic strategy — from focusing on seniors first for vaccines, which was in defiance of CDC guidelines at the time, to re-opening schools last summer. And he knows hitting the news media helps score points with his core supporters.
He spent 20 minutes Wednesday refuting two claims in the "60 Minutes" report: that Publix was the beneficiary of a pay-to-play scheme and that Publix was the exclusive COVID-19 vaccine distributor in Palm Beach County earlier this year.
"This is bad for our country to have big corporate media smearing for profit just because I'm in the other party than them and using their partisanship to craft narratives regardless of the facts," he said Thursday.
"Unfortunately, the report from '60 Minutes' doesn't necessarily connect the dots with firm evidence that the donation led to particular actions in terms of Publix's selection," said Joshua Scacco, an associate professor in the University of South Florida's department of communication. "What the governor is up against here is the perception that happens in politics quite a bit, which is — you have corporations, they make donations to political leaders. Political leaders, in turn, make decisions that sometimes benefit their donors. That doesn't necessarily mean there's an explicit connection. He's up against this sort of correlation, does not imply causation."
"It's a terrible report," said Politico reporter Marc Caputo. "It was just a trashy, cheap report."
Caputo points out the campaign finance report CBS said it "obtained" is publicly available on the Internet and the story of the Publix campaign donations before the vaccine distribution deal had been reported by several news organizations.
"I've really been astonished at the sloppiness, the bias, of mainly New York-based national news media in covering Florida," he said.
Another Florida Republican officeholder was making national headlines this week. Panhandle Congressman Matt Gaetz. He is caught up in a federal investigation looking into allegations that he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and paid for her when they traveled together. Gaetz is 38 years old.
He has not been charged with any crime and he has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Gaetz has become enmeshed in an investigation into former Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg.
Greenberg faces 33 federal charges, including stalking, wire fraud and sex trafficking of a minor. In a brief hearing in Orlando Thursday, Greenberg’s lawyer, Fritz Scheller, and federal prosecutors told the judge they expect him to strike plea deal.
"There is a lot of smoke," said Mary Ellen Klas, the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Capitol bureau chief. "It's pretty clear that there are a lot of questions here."
Among the questions are the nature of the relationship between Gaetz and women who accompanied him and others on a trip to the Bahamas. According to the New York Times, the Justice Department is investigating the allegations against Gaetz — he has said "no part of the allegations against me are true."
"The difficulty here is at what point does something turn from a relationship where things of value change hands legally versus an arrangement of prostitution? That's what investigators going to be figuring out," Caputo said.
Piney Point And The Politics Of Pollution
Millions of gallons of polluted water have been pumped from a Manatee County phosphate plant retention pond and into Tampa Bay this week. A leak was found in the pond, raising concerns the earthen walls could collapse. The state had been releasing up to 50 million gallons of wastewater a day to prevent that from happening.
On Thursday, the state reduced the flow down to 5 million gallons a day and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection says they will treat the water before releasing it into Tampa Bay. The water isn’t radioactive but it is filled with nutrients that can cause algae blooms. And algae can have a detrimental domino effect on the body of water’s ecosystem.
"The amount of nitrogen coming out would eventually be a year's worth for the bay in just a week or two," said WUSF reporter Jessica Meszaros.
The threat from the polluted water has been known for decades.
"Regulators just kind of sat on their hands," said Klas. "This is what happened with that kind of delay. We're now facing the consequences."
Early in his administration, Gov. DeSantis received high marks from environmentalists for directing state spending on water and Everglades projects after summertime green and red algae outbreaks on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts killed marine life and choked tourism.
"This is a time where Ron DeSantis' rhetoric about making a Florida a cleaner, better place to recreate, to fish, to live and balance that with the needs and interests industry are going to come to a head," Caputo said.