TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) — Gov. Ron DeSantis embarked on a retribution tour this week after the CBS News program “60 Minutes” tried to paint his COVID-19 vaccination efforts with the Publix supermarket chain as a pay-to-play scheme.
In a stop at the Capitol on Wednesday, DeSantis took reporters through a PowerPoint presentation headlined, “Facts vs. Smears: Debunking false & defamatory partisan attacks by 60 Minutes.”
“I don’t need any plaudits from corporate media. But if they’re going to come down here and smear our efforts or smear me or smear great companies in my state, I’m going to hit ‘em back, right between the eyes,” DeSantis said.
In the “60 Minutes” piece Sunday, reporter Sharyn Alfonsi focused on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Palm Beach County — specifically claims that the wealthy town of Palm Beach was favored over poorer rural areas. At the center of the story was the state’s partnership with Lakeland-based Publix, which Alfonsi asserted was given “exclusive rights” to distribute vaccine doses in Palm Beach.
“How is that not pay to play?” Alfonsi asked DeSantis during a news conference last month in Melbourne, a clip of which was featured in Sunday’s show.
The “60 Minutes” reporter drew connections between a $100,000 donation made by Publix to DeSantis’ political committee and the governor’s decision to partner with the supermarket chain in vaccinating residents. Alfonsi sat down with a Democratic member of the Florida House to illustrate that getting vaccinated at Publix wasn’t an option for many people in communities near Palm Beach.
“Belle Glade is one of the poorest communities, not just in Palm Beach County, but in the state of Florida. So, you have lots of folks who don’t have cars,” said Rep. Omari Hardy, a West Palm Beach Democrat who was interviewed for the segment. “The nearest Publix to Belle Glade is about 25 miles.”
The governor, who regularly locks horns with the media, is seizing the moment after the CBS report. Some of the biggest names in conservative media, and some Democrats like Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner, have come to his defense.
The focus of DeSantis’ scorched-earth campaign is a rebuttal to the claims that Publix had exclusivity in receiving vaccines, with the governor saying Wednesday that Florida never paid the chain “one red cent” to give shots.
“There is no exclusive deal with Publix in Palm Beach. They were doing the long-term care (facilities), Walgreens and CVS, the whole time,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis’ arguments were backed by state Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat who previously served in the state House and appeared with DeSantis on Wednesday.
“The decision to use Publix was made in my office in the (state Emergency Operations Center),” Moskowitz said, adding the recommendation was developed with “10 people in the room.”
Moskowitz also said he reached out to Walmart before approaching Publix and reiterated previous statements that he spoke with “60 Minutes” off-camera before the piece aired to debunk the “Publix narrative.”
“I told them that this Publix narrative was malarkey, and they still went with it,” Moskowitz said.
DeSantis said portions of his answer to Alfonsi’s question were edited out of the segment that aired Sunday.
“It’s very telling, when I was asked at that press conference, I gave a very detailed answer. And that answer was edited out. Every single fact that I discussed was edited out,” DeSantis said.
CBS is standing by the segment, saying in a statement that Alfonsi’s reporting “speaks for itself.”
CNN’s Chris Cillizza opined that DeSantis is winning the exchange with CBS
“The report — and the backlash — amount to a massive gift to DeSantis as he looks to his re-election race next year and, he hopes, a 2024 run for the Republican presidential nomination. … DeSantis couldn’t have written this script any better,” Cillizza wrote. “He gets oodles more national attention and love from Trump conservatives, all the while being able to bash away at the media. Win, win, win.”
Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Florida rushed out fundraising emails signed by DeSantis that said “the media and the Democrats are destroying this country. They’re threatened by my leadership because they know their lockdown narrative and school closure agenda has been proven false. But, I will not back down. … I know millions of Americans are depending on me to stay strong and hold the line. Will you stand with me and fight back against the Democrat run media?”
While his focus was on DeSantis, state House Minority Co-leader Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said no governor, no matter the state or party, has done a good job fighting COVID-19.
In a conference call with reporters Monday, Jenne said he was bothered by state chief executives going around “finger pointing” that they’ve done better than their counterparts in responding to the pandemic.
“For people that want to stand up and go, ‘I’m better than this governor, I’m better than that governor,’ it’s stupid,” Jenne said. “You all did a bad job. You all did a bad job. And you all need to own that and move forward with that.”
“You cannot claim that Florida did a good job, when we are going to probably have (35,000) to 40,000 dead Floridians by the time this whole thing is over,” Jenne continued. “You cannot call that a win. You cannot say, ‘Well, I got the economy opened early.’ Well there’s still going to be (35,000) to 40,000 dead Floridians, virtually guaranteed, by the time this thing wraps up, and we can finally move on.”
“You know, you cannot claim that what happened out in California, that they did a great job handling the economy. You know, you can’t say that New York or Texas did a good (job). Nobody did a great job,” Jenne added. “It was pathetic all the way around. And, you know, no one should be patting themselves on the back about how the United States handled this, this epidemic.”