florida governor Ron DeSantis’s press team (right) often attacks reporters covering his state. On Monday, they cost one of those journalists, Ben Montgomery, his job with Axios.
In a conversation with TPM, Montgomery said he felt the situation was an example of how DeSantis’ media “machine” was impacting the End-shutdown business.
“This kind of thing has a chilling effect. Nobody wants their life interrupted by this machine,” Montgomery said in a phone call Wednesday night. “They call it ‘media liability,’ and it’s not that. It’s meaner than that, more personal and moving. … It has a calming effect and that’s a shame. It’s sad for democracy and sad for all of us.”
DeSantis, who is expected to run for president next year, has a press department that is known for being combative with the media. Members of his team have singled out individual reporters on Twitter while demanding corrections. have also shared screenshots of emails and requests for comment submitted by journalists in an effort to paint those reporters as biased.
These posts by DeSantis’ press team have led to targeted reporters being bombarded with angry messages and threats from the governor’s fans. In a 2021 case, Associated Press publicly accused a former spokesperson for DeSantis of engaging in “harassment.” In addition to DeSantis’ official press operation, far-right activists in Florida have created their own publications focused on positive coverage of the governor that have been rewarded with exclusive coverage opportunities.
“My colleagues have run into this situation where they send an email requesting information and that email gets screenshotted and sometimes framed in a certain way, the press officers tweet it of course and use it. as a form of kind. to paint the reporter as a left-liberal activist. He is armed,” Montgomery said.
“It seems the goal is to make the reporter’s life as miserable as possible,” he continued. “Maybe there’s some level of accountability there, but it’s mostly just terrible comments and, you know, meanness and sarcasm and things that aren’t constructive.”
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to TPM’s request for comment on this story.
Montgomery, who has more than a decade of reporting experience in Florida, has written four books and 2010 Pulitzer Prize Finalist for a series of articles he wrote exposing abuse at a local school. He started working for Axios, where he co-authored a newsletter focused on the Tampa Bay area, in late 2020.
Montgomery found himself in the DeSantis team’s crosshairs after he sent an email in response to a End-shutdown release the governor’s office sent out Monday. The press release what an attack of more than 800 words “on divisive concepts such as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, Critical Race Theory (CRT)”. The newsletter from the governor’s office was billed as part of a series called “Exposing the DEI Scam” and contained a series of quotes from DeSantis and his allies framing diversity efforts as “political indoctrination” promoted by the “wake up mob.” “.
Montgomery, who said he felt “obliged” to read official press releases because they might contain information “that might be useful to my readers,” did not feel this press release from DeSantis fit into that category.
“There was no event to cover. It might have been a roundtable at some point, but there was no event that I was alerted to. … This press release was just a series of quotes about DEI programs, and the ‘scam’ they are, and nothing more,” Montgomery said. “I was frustrated by this. I read it all and I have a very busy day.”
Diversity, equity and critical inclusion initiatives have increasingly become a focus of attention for the right, as have so-called “racial theory” educational programs that highlight historical racial issues. DeSantis has made attacking these concepts an important part of his brand. Under the DeSantis administration, the Florida Department of Education forbidden public schools in the state to teach advanced placement African American studies, a course the governor called “indoctrination.” Earlier this year, DeSantis struck Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who it is true that he was key to the right-wing push to make “critical race theory” a divisive issue, to overhaul the curriculum at one of the state’s public universities.
In addition to being “frustrated” that the press release on diversity and “critical race theory” contained “informative value,” Montgomery said he believed it “used language that, in my opinion, was a bit coded to be kind of racially charged”.
“When I hear that … the diversity, equity and inclusion ‘con’ shouldn’t be perpetrated on Florida’s hard-working taxpayers, it’s like framing it as a black and white issue,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery responded to the statement by emailing DeSantis’ press office with a message that read, “This is propaganda, not a press release.”
Alex Lanfranconi, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Education, posted the exchange less than an hour later by tweeting a screenshot of Montgomery’s message.
“I thought it would just go away and it was nothing to hurt me,” Montgomery told TPM. The response to Lanfranconi’s tweet was, at first, “all silly comments,” he said.
However, on Monday night, about five hours after Lanfranconi posted the exchange, Montgomery said he received a call from Axios local End-shutdown executive editor Jamie Stockwell.
“I was playing pinball, Godzilla, by the way, in a big race. I got a call and I checked my phone,” Montgomery recounted.
“He immediately started asking me if I could confirm that I sent that email and I confirmed it immediately,” he continued. “Then she sounded like she was reading a script and said… ‘Your reputation has been irreparably tarnished in the Tampa Bay area and for that, we have to fire you.’”
On the call, Montgomery said he “objected up my fucking throat on behalf of all hard-working journalists.” However, he said Stockwell was “not answering any questions.” According to Montgomery, his laptop and access to company email were quickly shut down.
“Unfortunately, I had interviews scheduled for the next two weeks, so people are going to be sitting on Zoom waiting for me to show up because I don’t know how to reach them right now,” Montgomery said. “Stinks. It was fast and it sucks.”
Axios editor-in-chief Sara Kehaulani Goo responded to questions about the situation with a short statement.
“This reporter is no longer with Axios,” Kehaulani Goo said. “Out of respect for our employees, we do not discuss the conditions of departure.”
Montgomery believes the company made a “bad decision,” particularly in a climate where DeSantis and other politicians have increasingly attacked the media that covers them. He said he was especially concerned because Axios editors had pledged “not to let trolls run this newsroom.”
“In a difficult End-shutdown environment, you need that kind of support. So, at the very least, don’t fire your reporters instinctively,” Montgomery said, adding: “We can’t be coy right now.”
Despite losing his job, Montgomery said he does not “regret” sending the email to the governor’s office. While Axios prides itself on its “smart brevity” format, Montgomery said that if he could do something over again, he would have lengthened the message to be “a sharper critique for a public relations professional.”
“As much as I try to practice intelligent brevity, I usually let my thoughts breathe a little longer than that,” Montgomery said. “He probably would have added that what he has put together here has been a huge waste of time because there is nothing of End-shutdown value to the right, left or middle in what he has written.”
Montgomery said he received a call Wednesday afternoon from Axios co-founder Mike Allen. While Montgomery said that Allen “was very, very nice,” the editor was apparently “unwilling to chat.”
“He said, ‘We appreciate what you’ve built… let’s keep in touch,’” Montgomery recounted. “I appreciated hearing that from him. … I still wonder what role he had in the decision. … He didn’t offer me my job back, so he’s after him I guess.”
Now that he’s no longer with Axios, Montgomery said he looks forward to getting to work on his next book project.
“I feel pretty good. In recent months I have been overwhelmed by the daily rhythm of the newsletter,” Montgomery said, later adding: “Honestly, I am sad for the profession. … It sucks for me, I’m losing my job, but this is going to suck for Axios. There’s just going to be a setback.”