The ‘60 Minutes’ report on DeSantis is an unusually clear case of liberal media bias

It’s a rare day when we encounter as blatant an example of liberal media bias as in the “60 Minutes” report last Sunday on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. It’s not that the mainstream media aren’t broadly liberal — they are. But such bias normally affects things like story selection and tone, and does not interfere with a fair presentation of the facts. Unfortunately, the botched story on DeSantis, a Republican, will be cited by conservatives for a long time as evidence that you just can’t trust the media.

So what happened? “60 Minutes” reported that DeSantis awarded a contract to the supermarket chain Publix to distribute COVID vaccines after Publix had made a $100,000 campaign donation to the governor’s political action committee. The governor refused to give “60 Minutes” an interview. But in a confrontation at a DeSantis news conference, “60 Minutes” reporter Sharyn Alfonsi asserted that the vaccine contract was a “reward” and asked him: “How is that not pay to play?”

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There are two problems here. First, the story accurately describes the quid but never manages to nail down the quo. It would be strange indeed if Publix did not make campaign contributions to DeSantis, as he is a major political figure. Large businesses do what they have to do to get along. Moreover, Publix stores would be obvious, logical places for administering vaccines.

The system was far from perfect. The report points out that, in some cases, Publix markets are far from communities of color, requiring two bus rides in one example. But that doesn’t prove DeSantis acted as he did because Publix had given him money. As media ethics expert Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute puts it:

In the story, there was a direct line between the campaign contribution and the rewarding. And they never proved that. I think they owe it to everybody — they owe it to the governor, they owe it to Publix, they owe it to the public — to explain to us how they came to that conclusion.

Second, having watched the news conference confrontation as edited for broadcast and compared it to the full, unedited version (above), I think it’s clear that DeSantis’ remarks were edited to cast him in the worst possible light. Journalists are free to use as little or as much as they like of an interview or, in this case, remarks at a news conference. But they are not free to edit those remarks in a way that changes their meaning or leaves out important context.

Among the people who have come to DeSantis’ defense, according to The Palm Beach Post, is Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner, a Democrat. “They are hellbent on dividing us for cheap views and clicks,” Kerner said in a written statement. “‘60 Minutes’ should be ashamed.” (Not every elected Democrat agrees with Kerner, including County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay.)

I doubt the problems with this story were the result of liberal bias in the sense of deliberately making things up in order to make DeSantis look bad. Nor do I think it was the only form of bias at work. There is the bias for confrontation and controversy, which is the most pervasive type of media bias that there is. There is the bias in favor of producing a “gotcha” story.

As for how liberal bias figures into this, I would say — and this is only guesswork, of course — that “60 Minutes” decided DeSantis had done a bad job of managing the COVID pandemic in Florida, and that he had been getting undeserved praise for reopening the state at a time when numbers are continuing to rise. So when Alfonsi confronted DeSantis with the revelation about Publix’s campaign contribution, she and her crew had already come to a conclusion and were simply looking for some good video to go with it.

Which brings us to another form of bias. As one of my graduate students said, the story also looks like an example of confirmation bias. “60 Minutes” didn’t take the necessary steps to verify its story because no one could see any problems with it. And that may be the most pernicious effect of all when it comes to having a newsroom that is populated almost exclusively by liberals.

Trust in the media is scraping the bottom, especially among Republicans. The “60 Minutes” report on DeSantis certainly doesn’t help.

9 thoughts on “The ‘60 Minutes’ report on DeSantis is an unusually clear case of liberal media bias

  1. Steve Ross

    The bias was bad enough, but there is another consequence.

    My first thought when I saw the show was that if there was quid pro quo, the governor sold his (minimal in any case) virtue rather cheaply… $100K is a droplet in Florida politics. So any reporting on that line should include proportion of monthly contributions that $100K represented, and history of total contributions from Publix to state politicians (including Democrats who absolved DeSantis, BTW). That goes for pundits (motto: We don’t have to be reporters… we’re just opinionators) criticizing 60 Minutes as well.

    My second thought was that what I had assumed would be the story line — Florida’s dumb free-for-all vaccine scramble where money talked far louder than maximization of public health benefits or social and racial equity — was going to get lost in the shuffle. Gawd, 60 Minutes took “Floriduh” off the table.

    BTW, one of the great early success stories on COVID vaccine distribution was West Virginia, which aimed its rollout efforts through local retailers and druggists rather than through Walgreens and CVS, which had been anointed by the feds.

    1. Ben Starr

      The local pharmacy thing in WV was also media bias. CT did a great job early relying on chain drugstores. WV was successful because it is a small state with a largely homogenous population. Either way, WV and CT stood out for maybe two weeks in the earliest days of the rollout, the equivalent of evaluating a ballgame in the 1st inning.

      1. Steve Ross

        WVA stood out far, far longer than that. Also, it is a low-income state, low-density, low broadband access. I was frankly amazed. CT (which i did not mention) is mixed bag. My health-concious brother in law, well over 65 and with two moderately serious comorbidities, has yet to get an appointment confirmed thru VAMS or a pharmacy.

    2. Dan Kennedy

      @Steve Ross: That’s very interesting about Connecticut. I gave them credit for opening up appointments to lower age groups more quickly than Massachusetts did, but I was wondering if people could actually get vaccines.

      1. Steve Ross

        There’s always a tension in public health between doing something you can administer fast, and being as efficient as possible with each dose– that is, dosing people in greatest danger AND/OR in greatest likelihood of spreading the disease.

        Some states, like Massachusetts, obsessed early about racial equity. Others said hell, rich step to the front of the line.

        In WV, most people are poor. Low proportion of non-whites anyway. Enormously unhealthy state with high comorbidity rates, so fairly easy to choose a sensible path.

        Connecticut had evidently not invested enough in public health to, for instance, set a policy to prioritize old folks in small towns vs young folks in crowded cities. And within 40 miles, New Haven, Bridgeport and Stanford could all lay plausible claim to priority. Ugh.

        In late January, MA elite medical institutions with very high comorbidity patients (many non-whites, btw, because MA undertreats non-whites but does better than most states) were ready to dose their patients and had set priorities. MA pulled the doses with just a few days’ notice. Took a month to get back on track.

  2. nahantjim

    I understand the argument you’re making, Dan, but as I read your report my own take had to do with the role of corporate money in politics and that issue is bi-partisan, both in favor of and agin it. In the 6th District where I live our former Congressman John Tierney and establishment Republican Whitney Hatch from Ipswich are both committed to campaign finance reform and are actively involved with the Issue One organization (https://www.issueone.org/), trying to diminish the power of big money in politics.

    Even though, according to today’s Globe, former Trump officials are having trouble getting seats on big corporate boards, I think the Republicans like DeSantis and, unfortunately, Charlie Baker, are too intertwined with corporate interests.

    https://www.bostonglobe.com/2021/04/07/nation/corporate-america-isnt-welcoming-former-trump-cabinet-officials-with-open-arms-headhunters-say/

    1. Steve Ross

      I’m not a fan of corporate interests. And money has never talked so loudly. When I first covered DC (in 1970!) I was appalled that congresspeople spent an hour a day dialing for dollars. They now spend 4 or 5.

      During the Vietnam War I was not a fan of unions (overwhelmingly pro war) or the Catholic Church in NYC.

      I laugh at most progressives (and the Globe) repeating anti-Hillary and anti-pipeline and anti-trade “facts” that academic studies say almost certainly were originated by 2700 Russian Twitter accounts detected and deleted by Twitter in mid-2017.

      But I am especially annoyed at my fellow journalists, who are repeatedly conned by their sources and no longer have the time, energy, or sophistication to dig. Hats off to Dan Kennedy and his colleagues. But we are losing the fight.

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