Mar 4

DeSantis bullies teenagers and the press plays dumb

Kid-glove coverage

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Barrelling into camera view at full speed on Wednesday, Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis lit into a group of assembled Tampa area students from Middleton High School who were selected to stand behind him while he announced a $20 million investment in cybersecurity workforce education. With his voice raised and his index finger pointed, he bullied and mocked the teenagers who opted to wear masks inside the school.

"You do not have to wear those masks," the angry governor announced. "I mean, please take them off. Honestly, it's not doing anything. We've got to stop with this COVID theater. So if you want to wear it fine, but this is ridiculous." He then turned to the lectern, let out an dramatic, annoyed huff, shook his head and began the press conference.

The next day, DeSantis used his attack on children to create a campaign ad and a fundraising appeal, suggesting the confrontation may have been premeditated by his political team. And the press let him get away with it by whitewashing the ugly event.

The hypocrisy on display was off the charts — conservatives like DeSantis for a year have railed against mask mandates for schools, demanding that individual parents and students ought to decide. It’s about personal choice! But when DeSantis saw teens opting to wear masks inside, he became unglued and told them they looked like fools, blowing away the GOP’s “choice” rhetoric.

According to CDC data, Hillsborough County in Florida, where DeSantis held his event Wednesday, remains an area with high levels of the coronavirus in the community and where masks are recommended indoors. “It’s just shocking that the governor told these kids ‘Take off your mask,’” said Dawn Marshall, the mother of a Middleton student who was behind DeSantis. “He pretty much said take off your mask, it’s stupid, and take off your mask, your parents don’t matter.”

The dressing down represented an unhinged display for any sitting governor, let alone one who aspires to be President of the United States. Aside from mocking and harassing the elderly in public, it’s hard to think of an outburst that, politically, is considered more verboten than attacking school children.

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These were not student protesters who picked a fight with DeSantis and he then responded. The teens were minding their own business, while exercising pandemic-era caution, when he launched a public attack and bullied them. (My hunch: He was afraid of what the optics on Fox News would look like if he stood in front of a group of masked teenagers.)

It’s the type of stunning misstep that the political press, always looking for unusual unscripted moments, normally pounces on and makes the politician pay a high price. Not with DeSantis.

Yes, the exchange generated lots of news coverage, but the way it was described made DeSantis look neither unglued nor bullying. According to many news outlets the raging governor had merely requested students to take off their masks, as if there had been a civil, respectful discussion, not a spectacle featuring Florida’s triggered governor openly mocking unsuspecting teens.

“Florida Governor Ron DeSantis Asks Students to Take Face Masks Off at Press Conference,” read the CBS News headline, which wildly downplayed the event. NBC News followed suit: “DeSantis Asks Students to Remove Masks And 'Stop With This Covid Theater.'” And USA Today, “Florida Gov. DeSantis Asks High School Students to Remove Masks at Event.” The paper suggested that the governor had simply “encouraged” the students.

When a grown man in a position of authority loudly talks down to teenagers and tells them they look “ridiculous” for not doing what he wants, that’s not “asking” them to do something. That’s trying to humiliate them. And the press played dumb. You can be sure that if Joe Biden or Kamala Harris ever went off on a group of teens with a finger-wagging tirade, the media coverage would not go out of its way to whitewash the event.

The soft-pedaling coverage fits into a larger media pattern of treating DeSantis as some kind of Covid star for the GOP, despite the fact 70,000 Floridians have died from the pandemic. In a puff piece profile of him over the weekend, the Washington Post never even mentioned that staggering death count.

Meanwhile, the Post reported DeSantis had “admonished,” and “upbraided” the students this week. Lots of news sources opted for “scolded.” “DeSantis Chides Students for Wearing Masks at His Tampa News Conference,” read a Tampa Bay Times headline. And from the Miami Herald, “Governor Ron DeSantis Tells High School Students to Remove Masks”

Here are descriptions that would have more accurately captured the haranguing; words that are not used when journalists are trying to obfuscate and play nice:

• “bullied”

• “harassed”

• “mocked”

• “belittled”

• “attacked”

But using straightforward verbs like that would have opened the door for right-wing jabs at journalists for having a “liberal bias” against DeSantis, so reporters and editors pulled their punches.

The press just refuses to stand up to GOP bullies.

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Yeah, tonight we're gonna do a little better
Hey, lonely wants to tear us down now

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