News outlet Axios fired a reporter in Tampa, Florida, this week after he called a press release from the Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) administration “propaganda” in an email that DeSantis officials posted online to smear the reporter.
In a reply to a press release about a DeSantis event called “Exposing the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Scam in Higher Education” from the Florida Department of Education, reporter Ben Montgomery said, “This is propaganda, not a press release.”
A screenshot of the email was posted on Twitter by Florida Education Department Communications Director Alex Lanfranconi almost immediately after it was sent, as timestamps on the email and the tweet suggest.
Hours later, on Monday evening, Montgomery received a call from Axios Local executive editor Jamie Stockwell, Montgomery says, per The Washington Post. Stockwell reportedly asked Montgomery to confirm that he had indeed sent the email before the outlet fired him, saying that Montgomery’s “reputation in the Tampa Bay area” was “irreparably tarnished.”
The press release is available online and is full of thinly veiled racism, which is nothing new from the DeSantis administration, especially in its attacks on education and the teaching of Black history and LGBTQ topics.
The release reads like a far right screed, railing on “divisive concepts such as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives” and critical race theory. The press release suggests, as DeSantis has implied in his actions and essentially outright said, that diversity initiatives in higher education are discriminatory against white people, playing into the far right’s white supremacist and completely fabricated conspiracy theories about the “Great Replacement” of white people in society by global elites.
“This sort of thing has a chilling effect. Nobody wants to have their life disrupted by this machine,” Montgomery said in an interview with Talking Points Memo. “They call it ‘media accountability,’ and it is not that. It’s meaner than that, and more personal, and affecting…. It has a quieting effect and that’s a shame. It’s sad for democracy and sad for all of us.”
Montgomery’s termination by Axios is a show of how supposedly “neutral” news outlets legitimize and elevate fascists like DeSantis as they plunge the U.S. further to the right. This is evidenced by how quickly Montgomery was fired by Axios for a private communication, and by the fact that the outlet would take such a drastic move against Montgomery, whose “propaganda” comment was actually quite mild in describing DeSantis and his war against civil rights and the free press.
DeSantis and many other far right politicians are highly aware of this weak spot in the corporate media, and openly take advantage of it in order to spread their propaganda. Donald Trump is a master in this art, and it has been deployed by other right-wing politicians like West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice, who recently pressured West Virginia Public Broadcasting into terminating a reporter over a story about disabled people being abused in state facilities.
This sort of propagandizing, press complicity and political silencing is, in fact, a fixture of fascists throughout history; historians have documented the ways in which outlets like The New York Times uplifted Adolf Hitler during his rise to power, for instance, ultimately aiding him in taking over as chancellor of Germany and carrying out the Holocaust. Hitler, along with his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, whipped up support for the Holocaust through control of the media nationwide, including suppressing journalists who disagreed with Nazism.
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