Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his supporters are blasting the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes” this week over a segment Sunday on how the COVID-19 vaccine has been distributed in the state.
The segment questioned whether Publix was rewarded with vaccine distribution because of campaign contributions to DeSantis.
But in doing so, a veteran journalist and educator says, they were lacking an important element: evidence the campaign contributions were connected to the vaccine distribution.
The segment correctly noted the wealthy and well-connected in Florida were getting vaccinated at greater rate than others, leaving the latter “without a fair shot.”
But on Tuesday, DeSantis said it was he who wasn’t given a fair shot in the broadcast, for which he declined to be interviewed.
“You ain’t running over this governor,” he said at an appearance in the Panhandle. “I’m punching back.”
The portion of the report garnering the most criticism was how it framed Publix getting exclusive vaccine access early in the state’s effort after donating to DeSantis.
And the governor may have a point, said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute who has helped author journalism codes of ethics.
“So there was a certain amount of this-hand-washes-that-hand implication to the story that, ‘Ahh, there must be something going on here, that they got money and then they got this treatment.’ And while that might be true, the story doesn’t give us the proof of that," Tompkins said.
Instead it asks the question and follows it immediately with a suggested answer.
“So why did the governor choose Publix? Campaign finance reports obtained by '60 Minutes' show that weeks before the governor’s announcement, Publix donated $100,000 to his political action committee,” the report stated, showing already widely-reported contribution records available to anyone from a state website.
But there’s no proof campaign cash led to the vaccine distribution.
“There are lots of reasons why you might have chosen Publix,” said Tompkins, of the St. Petersburg-based Poynter Institute. “Obviously, political favoritism could’ve been one of them, but it could also be there were lots of Publix (locations) and they were ready to go and nobody else was.”
Which is what state emergency management director Jared Moskowitz has been saying for a month, calling the "60 Minutes" report “absolute malarkey” in a Tweet.
Or, as his boss the governor put it, “They cut out everything that showed that their narrative wasn’t a piece of horse manure.”
Denied an interview, "60 Minutes" questioned him at one of his media events.
“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,” the correspondent began one question.
Asked about her use of the word “rewarded,” Tompkins said, “Rewarded is a loaded word, no doubt about it. ‘Why did you give that contract to them?’ would be a different way of asking that question.”
While Moskowitz said the idea of using Publix did not originate with the governor’s office, DeSantis said the choice would be obvious.
“It’s one of the most popular brands in the state. It would’ve been malpractice to cut Publix out of assisting,” DeSantis said.
As for what’s next, Tompkins said, “I think '60 Minutes' is going to have to step up and if they’ve got some proof, they need to come forward with it immediately or else they’re going to eat this one.”
And DeSantis is rarin’ to be among those feeding them crow.
“You ain’t getting away with it here,” he said. “You come down to our state and you try to smear people, we’re going to fight back and we’re going to hold you accountable.”
Asked for comment on the controversy, "60 Minutes" Tuesday issued this statement: “When Florida state data revealed people of color were vaccinated at a much lower rate than their wealthier neighbors, 60 Minutes reported the facts surrounding the vaccine’s rollout, which is controlled by the governor. We requested and conducted interviews with dozens of sources and authorities involved. We requested an interview with Gov. Ron DeSantis, he declined; we spoke to state emergency management director Jared Moskowitz twice, but he declined to be interviewed on camera for our story until well after our deadline. The idea we ignored their perspective is untrue… 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.”
For its part, Publix issued a statement saying “the irresponsible suggestion that there was a connection” between the campaign contributions and the vaccine program “is absolutely false and offensive.”