Florida Gov. DeSantis repeatedly targeted by false viral claims amid 2024 speculation

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has so routinely battled with the mainstream media since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that he released a “Top Gun”-themed campaign ad highlighting his “dogfighting” with members of the press on Monday evening.

Left-leaning news organizations and liberal operatives have breathlessly covered DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic, as well as laws passed in his state. 

But both news organizations and liberal operatives have been repeatedly caught peddling false narratives about the governor widely considered to have one of the best shots at winning the 2024 Republican nomination.

Most recently, a fake list of “banned books” in Florida racked up thousands of retweets this week, duping prominent liberals like “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was on the fake list, as were other well-known titles including “A Wrinkle in Time,” “The Giver,” and “Of Mice and Men.”

The Palm Beach County School District temporarily removed “To Kill a Mockingbird” from classrooms to review it earlier this year, but has since returned it, according to the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which tracks book removals across Florida school districts, 

Bryan Griffin, press secretary for Florida’s Republican governor, confirmed in several tweets that the claim was false.

“The truth matters and Governor Ron Desantis is standing up for the truth, even if it is unpopular to do so or goes against the prevailing narrative,” Griffin said in an exclusive statement to Fox News Digital on Tuesday. “Alarmingly, if the prevailing narrative of the day diverges from the truth, a like-minded cohort of mainstream media, academics, corporate figures, and celebrities work together to bolster the false narrative. The governor has tasked us with amplifying the truth and pushing back on falsehoods, and we are committed to doing that.”

While DeSantis, like governors across the country, briefly shut down businesses, schools and beaches at the beginning of the pandemic in Spring 2020, he quickly pivoted to reopening the state and getting kids back in school as quickly as possible. The decision to become one of the first states in the country to reopen spurred the nickname “DeathSantis” to spread as quickly as the virus.

And yet even when cases spiked in Florida, along with the rest of the country due to the spread of the Delta variant in 2021, the death rate remained on par with lockdown states like California and New York. Today, Florida’s death rate is on par with New York’s and still lower than lockdown-heavy states like Michigan and New Jersey despite the Sunshine State’s large elderly population.

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When DeSantis reopened the state and banned mask and vaccine mandates in schools, liberal media members blasted DeSantis as a “death cultist.”

“The Right Wants to Freedom Us to Death,” The New Republic editor Michael Tomasky complained in a headline.

“Why not call it the DeSantis variant?” CNN anchor Jim Acosta mused in August 2021.

And when DeSantis prioritized vaccine distribution for the state’s most vulnerable community, the elderly, he was accused of racism and favoritism toward whiter, Republican-leaning residents. Former Republican Governor-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist, who defeated Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, called for a federal investigation into alleged favoritism in the vaccine distribution plan.

Horror novelist Stephen King claimed in a viral tweet at the time that it was “likely” that DeSantis provided “rich, Republican-leaning communities” with priority vaccinations for “political gain.” Ironically, King, a 74-year-old resident of Sarasota County, Florida, was vaccinated weeks before his tweet under DeSantis’ vaccination plan.

DeSantis opponents also pushed unsupported claims – boosted by a heavily-criticized Yahoo News article in March 2021 – that Florida’s COVID-19 death toll was actually higher than reported, as a way of criticizing the governor’s stance against lockdowns.

Crist declared on Twitter at the time that DeSantis “was likely hiding thousands of positive COVID cases,” linking to the article.

But even the Washington Post noted that that narrative simply wasn’t supported by the facts and that Florida’s data reporting was not out of the ordinary.

The narrative that Florida was underreporting its death toll was sparked by allegations from former health official Rebekah Jones, who won the Democratic primary Tuesday night and will face Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., in November for the House seat in Florida’s 1st Congressional District.

Jones became a media darling in 2020 after she accused the DeSantis administration of pressuring her to fudge the state’s COVID data. From May 2020 to December 2020, Jones made at least nine separate on-air appearances on CNN shows, most often on “Cuomo Prime Time.”

Jones has long claimed the Florida Department of Health manipulated coronavirus numbers at the Republican governor’s behest to allow the state to reopen at the height of the pandemic. 

However, her story was declared false following an internal report by the health department’s inspector general.

CNN HEAVILY PROMOTED REBEKAH JONES’ FAKE CONSPIRACY ACCUSING DESANTIS ADMIN OF ALTERING COVID DATA

Jones was officially fired for insubordination; her personnel files, uploaded by National Review, revealed repeated infractions documented by her superiors, including posting on “social media regarding data and web product owned by the Department that she works on without permission of management or communications,” and potentially exposing personnel data on the geographic information system (GIS) dashboard she managed. 

In April 2021, CBS News’ “60 Minutes” delivered a heavily criticized report on DeSantis that implicitly accused the governor of giving Florida grocery store chain Publix lucrative rights to vaccine distribution in exchange for a $100,000 campaign donation. Several Florida Democrats named in the report, including Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner, blasted the report as false.

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“The reporting was not just based on bad information – it was intentionally false,” Kerner said at the time. “I know this because I offered to provide my insight into Palm Beach County’s vaccination efforts and ’60 Minutes’ declined. They know that the governor came to Palm Beach County and met with me and the county administrator and we asked to expand the state’s partnership with Publix to Palm Beach County.”

Publix also slammed the “60 Minutes” report as “absolutely false and offensive.”

DeSantis told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that in Palm Beach County, which was the focal point of “60 Minutes” report, leaders in the heavily-Democratic precinct calculated that 90% of its senior citizen population lived within 1.5 miles of a Publix. He also blasted “corporate media operatives” in response to the story on “Fox & Friends.”

“They know that they got caught, so they never even addressed that, they just issued these mealy-mouthed statements, but what I would say to ’60 Minutes’ and the American people, they have so much contempt for their viewers to try to gaslight them like this,” DeSantis said at the time. “You know what, admit that it was false. That’s the responsible thing to do.”

DeSantis signed into law in July a parental rights bill that was dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by Democrats who misleadingly claimed it banned any discussion pertaining to being gay in Florida public schools. 

The Parental Rights in Education bill, which was called “hateful” by President Biden and drew condemnation from Disney, bans teachers from giving classroom instruction on “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade. 

DEMOCRATS CLAIM FLORIDA IS PUSHING ‘DON’T SAY GAY’ BILL. HERE’S WHAT THE LEGISLATION ACTUALLY SAYS

The bill does not ban the word “gay” in school settings, and it does not ban casual discussions of topics relating to sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom.

LGBTQ activists have claimed the law violates free speech protections in the First Amendment, but the law only pertains to the “instruction” of such topics, not casual conversation, and since public schools are government run, those protections are much more limited for teachers.

In July, the leftwing website Salon.com was forced to change the headline of an old story that had already been debunked after prominent Twitter liberals revived it to accuse DeSantis of being an “authoritarian” pushing a “fascist” law.

In June 2021, Salon published a story with the headline, “DeSantis signs bill requiring Florida students, professors to register political views with state.”

‘DEBUNKED’ STORY ABOUT DESANTIS’ ‘FASCIST’ REGISTRY SHARED BY LINCOLN PROJECT’S WILSON, LEFTISTS A YEAR LATER

At the time, PolitiFact declared the claim as “false,” explaining that the HB 233 law that was passed would require public colleges and universities to conduct a survey exploring the “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on their campuses and that individual participation was voluntary. 

The survey, which hadn’t been drafted yet, would ask whether individuals “feel they can express their political viewpoints and opinions in their college classrooms.’”

However, the Salon article resurfaced on Twitter this July as if the law had just passed, and journalists like USA Today correspondent Josh Meyer and Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch parroted the fake narrative. 

After the article resurfaced, Salon executive editor Andrew O’Hehir admitted the headline was “misleading,” and it was eventually changed to read, “DeSantis signs bill requiring survey of Florida students, professors on their political views.”

In June 2021, members of the media faced backlash for politicizing the tragic residential building collapse that killed 98 people in Surfside, Florida. 

Washington Post reporter Hannah Dreier was accused of misleading people about DeSantis’ response to the crisis after she claimed the governor waited more than 24 hours to provide emergency relief for victims. The governor’s office later provided documents debunking the claim.

Other critics appeared to accuse DeSantis of actually causing the building’s collapse through deregulation.

“Let’s hear it for deregulation, folks!” The Intercept journalist Ken Klippenstein wrote on Twitter after calling attention to a “Florida Deregathon” DeSantis promoted in 2019. 

There is no known link between any of the regulations DeSantis lifted and the building’s collapse. In May, the governor signed into law a new requirement for statewide recertification of condominiums over three stories tall.

In June 2021, activists sought to blame DeSantis after a fatal truck crash at a Pride event in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. While some including Ft. Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis were quick to describe the incident as a terrorist attack, it turned out to be an unfortunate accident. 

Peter Schorsch, the publisher of FloridaPolitics.com, appeared to blame DeSantis for the incident because of his anti-riot bill and his bills regarding transgender athletes in girls’ sports. Schorsch later deleted his tweet. 

The hashtag #DeathSantis also trended on Twitter as users falsely linked DeSantis to the accident.

DeSantis is up for reelection this November and is frequently mentioned as a leading 2024 presidential contender.

DeSantis will face the Democrat Crist in the general election.

Fox News’ Timothy H.J. Nerozzi, Brian Flood, Joseph A. Wulfsohn, Evie Fordham, Houston Keene, Lindsay Kornick, Michael Ruiz and Paul Steinhauser and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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