Reporter Fired for Calling DeSantis Propaganda ‘Propaganda’
Truth is not an absolute defense against termination.
WaPo (“Fla. reporter fired after calling news release on DeSantis event ‘propaganda’“):
An Axios reporter in Tampa said he was fired this week after he responded to a Florida Department of Education email about an event featuring Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), calling the news release “propaganda.”
Ben Montgomery said he received a call on Monday evening from Jamie Stockwell, executive editor of Axios Local, who asked Montgomery to confirm he sent the email before saying the reporter’s “reputation in the Tampa Bay area” had been “irreparably tarnished.”
The news release sent Monday afternoon said DeSantis, a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate, had hosted a roundtable “exposing the diversity equity and inclusion scam in higher education.” It also called for prohibiting state funds from being used to support DEI efforts.
“We will expose the scams they are trying to push onto students across the country,” DeSantis said in the statement.
Montgomery, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, replied to the email three minutes after getting it. “This is propaganda, not a press release,” he wrote to the Department of Education press office.
About an hour after that, the Education Department’s communication officer, Alex Lanfranconi, shared Montgomery’s reply on Twitter, where it has since been viewed more than 1 million times.
Montgomery said the news release had “no substance,” adding that he “read the whole thing and it was just a series of quotes about how bad DEI was.”
Axios editor in chief Sara Kehaulani Goo confirmed Montgomery is no longer employed by Axios, but declined to comment further.
Montgomery, who has worked as a journalist in the Tampa Bay area since 2005, said he has seen similar incidents happen to reporters in Florida.
“It’s incredibly important that their organizations stand up on their behalf and realize that this is nothing but a political tactic to gain right-wing votes and disrupt the lives of hard-working journalists,” he said.
Named a Pulitzer finalist for his reporting that uncovered abuse at a Florida reform school for boys, Montgomery was hired by Axios in late 2020 and sent his first newsletter in January 2021 as part of the outlet’s growing presence in local journalism. He said the staff was often assured in his early days at the company that “we’re not going to let the trolls run the newsroom,” and that he was therefore “unafraid” to send the email to the press office.
Axios allowed reporters in 2020 to join racial justice demonstrations after the police killing of George Floyd, but restricted its journalists from protesting for or against abortion rights two years later.
The reaction in the newsroom has been a mix of sadness for losing a colleague and fear that something similar could happen to them, according to a person familiar with internal meetings who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal exchanges.
Montgomery said his former co-workers have expressed “outrage” to him about what happened.
“It might seem like a little thing for a guy in Tampa, Fla., to be out of a job for a minute,” Montgomery said. “But this has ripple effects for an administration that’s really had their way with the press and run roughshod over a lot of people — good people.”
TPM’s Hunter Walker (“Reporter Describes Being Fired By Axios After Being Targeted By Ron DeSantis’ Media ‘Machine’“):
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) press team often attacks the reporters who cover 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 news business.
“This sort of thing has a chilling effect. Nobody wants to have their life disrupted by this machine,” Montgomery said in a phone call on Wednesday evening. “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.”
DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president next year, has a press shop that is known for being combative with the media. Members of his team have highlighted individual reporters on Twitter while demanding corrections. They have also shared screenshots of emails and requests for comment sent by journalists in an effort to paint those reporters as biased.
These posts from DeSantis’ press team have led to the reporters who are targeted being bombarded with angry messages and threats from the governor’s fans. In one 2021 instance, the Associated Press publicly accused a former DeSantis spokesperson of engaging in “harassment.” In addition to DeSantis’ official press operation, far-right Florida activists have set up their own publications focused on positive coverage of the governor that have been rewarded with exclusive coverage opportunities.
“My colleagues have sort of run into this situation where they will send an email asking for information and that email is then screenshotted and sometimes … it’s framed in a certain way … it’s tweeted of course by the press officers and used as a way to kind of paint the reporter as a lefty liberal activist. It’s weaponized,” Montgomery said.
“It seems like the goal is just to make the reporter’s life as miserable as possible,” he continued. “Maybe there’s some level of, like, accountability in there, but mostly it’s terrible comments, and, you know, meanness and snark, and things that aren’t constructive.”
Montgomery, who said he feels “obligated” to read official press releases since they could contain information “that might be useful for my readers,” did not feel this press release from DeSantis fit that category.
“There was no, like, event to cover. It might have been a roundtable at some point, but there was no event that I had been alerted to. … This press release was just a series of quotes about DEI programs, and the ‘scam’ they are, and nothing else,” Montgomery said. “I was frustrated by this. I read the whole thing and my day is very busy.”
Along with being “frustrated” that the press release about diversity and “critical race theory” didn’t contain “news value,” Montgomery said he believed it “used some language that, in my mind, was a little coded to be sort of racially charged.”
“When I hear like … the ‘scam’ of diversity, equity, and inclusion shouldn’t be perpetrated upon the hardworking taxpayers of Florida, it’s like framing it as a Black and white issue,” Montgomery said.
However, on Monday night, roughly five hours after Lanfranconi posted the exchange, Montgomery said he received a call from Axios’ executive editor for local news, Jamie Stockwell.
“She started immediately by asking if I could confirm that I sent that email and I did immediately confirm it,” he continued. “She then sounded like she was reading from a script and she said … ‘Your reputation has been irreparably tarnished in the Tampa Bay area and, because of that, we have to terminate you.’”
On the call, Montgomery said he “objected with my full fucking throat on behalf of every hard-working journalist.” However, he said Stockwell “wasn’t answering any questions.” According to Montgomery, his laptop and access to company email were swiftly shut down.
“I had, unfortunately, interviews lined up for the next couple of 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 now,” said Montgomery. “It sucks. It was quick and it sucks.”
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 it was especially troubling because Axios editors had vowed to “not let the trolls run this newsroom.”
“In a difficult news environment, you need that sort of support. So, at a minimum, don’t fire your reporters in a knee-jerk fashion,” Montgomery said, adding, “We can’t be sheepish 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 re-do anything, he would have made the message longer to make it “sharper criticism for a PR professional.”
“As much as I try to practice smart brevity, I normally let my thoughts breathe a little more than that,” Montgomery said. “I probably would have added that what you have assembled here has been a giant waste of time because there’s nothing of news value for the right, or the left, or the in between in what you’ve written.”
While I’m quite sympathetic to Montgomery’s view of the situation, and don’t think he should have been fired, I’m not shocked that he was. Not only did he step out of the reporter’s role into a commentators but he played right into the DeSantis team’s hand.
Was the press release “propaganda”? Yup. Then again, that’s true of many if not most press releases sent out by politicians—particularly governors and senators gearing up for a presidential run.
Did it contain “news value”? Probably. Indeed, I’m sure several journalists who got the email dutifully reported on DeSantis’ speech by quoting from it. His administration’s hostility to diversity efforts is actually newsworthy.
Certainly, opinion columnists of both left and right could have found it useful. Indeed, were Montgomery an opinion writer, he could have used his column to make the case that the release was “coded to be sort of racially charged.”
Reading between the lines, Montgomery seems to acknowledge that he was tired and cranky and responded to the email a bit too tersely. By his own account, he did so a mere three minutes after receiving the email. So, the notion that he had somehow wasted an inordinate amount of his busy day is a stretch.
I wholeheartedly share Montgomery’s contempt for the DeSantis effort to weaponize exchanges with the press. It’s frankly un-American. But his snarky email simply added fuel to the fire, allowing the DeSantis team to portray a hard-working reporter as an ideological opponent.
So much for the concept that reporters should be telling the public the truth, not simply repeating what was stated.
There have been numerous articles saying that the press needs call out politicians when they are perpetrating bold-faced lies. While most of the calls are meant to call out trump, pointing out lies, falsehoods and deceptions by any pol is fair game. That a reporter for Axios is fired for doing this doesn’t bode well for honest coverage in the upcoming elections. Prepare yourselves for continued both-siderism.
It is certainly thoughtful of Axios to demonstrate so clearly that they will always kowtow to any pressure from the right, even to the extent of firing their own people to satisfy DeSantis’ insane ego.
Now there’s no longer any need to read a single word they publish.
Reminder that in 2021, Politico was bought by Axel Springer SE, basically the German version of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
The criticism that a press release is just a bunch of quotes is a valid one. A string of quotes is not the equivalent of news. Information is. Even if the quotes are relating to a new program, there should be direct, objective/quantifiable information in a news release.
This reporter probably would still be employed had he simply junked the news release rather than pointing out that it was rather obviously not newsworthy. Very disappointing and not a good look for Axios.
Lost in the mist here is the fact that Florida taxpayers, via the governor’s PR team (writing press releases for the Dept. of Education, etc.), are funding DeSantis’ presidential campaign. Given that DeSantis just won another gubernatorial term, for what other purpose would his “media machine” be releasing this culture war nonsense?
Blah, need coffee, got the wrong formerly centrist site bought out by right wing billionaires:
Reminder that in 2022, Axios was bought out by Cox Enterprises, run by right wing billionaire James C. Kennedy
At this point, I’d like to see whatever the journalistic equivalent is of Blue Flu. Reporters should just stop covering this beclowned governor. HE HAS NO SUBSTANCE.
Stop falling for this sh!t. Trash his news releases. Send interns to “cover” press conferences. This behavior from the governor’s press office is childish and stupid and there need to be some consequences.
@Charley in Cleveland: Trump clearly agrees.
Trump allies file ethics complaint against Gov. DeSantis
Keep your bigotry in your own god-forsaken state, Meatball.
From 50,000 feet; it strikes me that the GQP is consistently on the wrong side of reality on so many of these issues. Corporate America understands that diversity makes you business stronger. The same with Climate Change – Corporate America recognizes that it is real and includes it in their planning. All while the Party that gave us MAGA fights against the tide. All while they continue to lose elections.
But his snarky email simply added fuel to the fire, allowing the DeSantis team to portray a hard-working reporter as an ideological opponent.
Honestly, James, this is such a strange sentence for you to write.
It takes the passive voice to such an extreme that it mounts a defense of DeSantis by proxy.
Who is this active subject of the sentence, for whom it “added fuel”, to whom it “allowed” DeSantis to portray it? Whose viewpoint does it represent?
Like, not you, right? Because in your own words, the reporter’s comment was truthful and accurate and fair.
It reads to me like an Inside The Beltway type of savvy pundit, where one attempts to see everything in terms of what wins the news cycle with the most clever messagery truthiness.
‘Your reputation has been irreparably tarnished in the Tampa Bay area and, because of that, we have to terminate you. ”
The ultimate goal of all these anti-woke types is to turn America into a fundie/cop/military hellhole where even a minor amount of diversity/snark/anything is enough to get you canned.
Dr Joyner, your take here is contradictory. If, indeed, the Press Release was Propaganda (as you confirmed)–then the journalist did not step out of his role and commentate. He actually did REPORT. The detail that all politicians release Propaganda to one degree or another is not relevant. Particularly is ones goal is for the media to be the People’s check on Government.
We continue to undermine our stated goals in the name of “both sides” and “what about…”–yet continue to bemoan the status quo.
Journalists are supposed to be non-partisan. We are in an era in which political lying is highly asymmetric. In this circumstance the supposedly traditional “voice from nowhere” works very much to the partisan advantage of the party that lies a lot more.
@Chip Daniels: First off, the sentence isn’t in the passive voice. Second, why reply to the email at all? He let his frustration get the better of him.
@Jim Brown 32: @Sleeping Dog: The problem is that the reporter here wasn’t reporting, he was spouting off. He was fired after an email got weaponized against him. I don’t think firing was warranted for a first offense, which so far as I know this was. But it’s not journalism, either.
@Charley in Cleveland: This is hardly a novel phenomenon. Governors and all politicians running for higher office use their current office as campaign fodder. I mean, we’re funding Biden’s reelection campaign, too.
Remember people, cancel culture does not exist! And if it does, it’s accountability culture!
More seriously, firing this person is wrong IMO, but let’s be real – every press release is propaganda, especially from politicians. I work in the cellular industry and read a lot of press releases for new products and services and they are all filled with propaganda.
You look at a position like the White House Press Secretary and the job is basically 95% propaganda. Everyone realizes this and plays the game – it simply wouldn’t be useful for a reporter to sit there and point a finger and declare it to be propaganda and spout off, but making that a firing offense seems extreme to me. And the fact that they were only fired after it was signal-boosted indicates that cancel culture is alive and well and that companies – even press/media companies – are still cowards in the face of online mobs.
This is hyperbole. I write a fair number of press releases, and no, they are not all propaganda. In fact, some of them are written for regulated industries and are required disclosures of the type that–if they are read–give people all the information they need to know about a company’s earnings and leadership. I write press releases that let people know where warming or cooling stations are located during extreme weather. I write press releases that alert people to upcoming closures, rescheduled events, and announce quarterly earnings, among many other things.
Communications work is absolutely essential, but when people deride it as “all propaganda” that’s what gives others permission to ignore it.
There have been probably dozens of posts on this blog about how to get through to people in different events, whether it’s understanding what constitutes and actual fact to public health issues to post-disaster recovery. Being condescending about communications and PR is a force of habit for some, I get that. But like it or not, it is important work.
Or he could have used the traditional “some people say” to insert his point, or gone the extra mile and gotten a quote from someone who would say what he wanted.
@Chip Daniels: Either there is no passive voice in that sentence, or the “by zombies” rule is not universal.
The “by zombies” rule identifies passive verbs by inserting the words “by zombies,” for instance: A 3 year old Black man was shot [by zombies] during an altercation with the police.
Ok, grammar nerds, which is it? Is Chip wrong, or has the “by zombies” rule been proven to be incomplete [by zombies]?
@Gustopher: Heh, my brain went there too. Passive voice is when the “thing” receiving an action (or the action itself) is the subject of the sentence and can usually be ID’ed by the use of was, am, were, are, been, etc.
Maybe passive aggressive fits better–indirect resistance.
Maybe he shouldn’t have done what he did but let’s not handwave away “Reporter fired for upsetting politician” as some sort of normal things that is just par for the course.
@Andy: Notice that Rod Dreher was “cancelled” but this guy was “fired.”
I said it was passive because the person “allowing” DeSantis to portray it was…who?
Because DeSantis’ effort to portray something needs a counterparty- an audience agreeing with the portrayal.
DeSantis’ characterization of the reporter’s comment is entirely reliant on the counterparty accepting and agreeing to it.
It isn’t possible for the reporter to “allow” DeSantis and the counterparty to portray anything. The message between DeSantis and the counterparty is entirely within their control, not the reporter’s.
The counterparty could just easily choose to say ” No, Ron, the reporter’s comment was accurate.”
The reason I make such a fuss over this is this is how repressive regimes, bullies and abusers work.
You burned the toast, so you made it easy to portray (to our neighbors) my hitting you as justified.
The journalist was an unlikable person, so it made it easy for the regime to portray him (to other nations) as a crank.
It requires the critics of the regime to be flawless, while giving a free pass to the onlookers to turn their eyes away from the injustice.
@Gustopher: I don’t see where by zombies goes into the highlighted quote. Somebody help me out.
@Chip Daniels: if you know you are dealing with bad actors, you have to take some precautions to avoid giving them something to act badly with, unless you want to have that fight.
The fight is worth having, but it should be intentional.
It’s like riding a bike on the streets — you might have the right of way, but you’re still dead.
Yes, it was hyperbole, and yes I have a certain disdain for the prevarication that characterizes most (IMO) PR enterprises. I apologize for unintentionally targeting you in my broadside. You are right that there are important exceptions and that public communications are important. But press releases from politicians is not one of those exceptions.
There’s more than one way to pour encourager les autres.
I don’t think it was intended to start a fight. at least based on the accounts, he was cranky and frustrated and fired off a snarky email that he normally wouldn’t have. A lot of these “fights” are cases where a small mistake or some minor “failure to read the room” is intentionally blown up to damage a political enemy, which in this case the DeSantis team did successfully.
Until people start standing up to this kind of bullying instead of caving as Axios managers did (and so many others in the past), this tactic will continue to be used and weaponized.
@Kazzy: I was being ironic using ‘canceled’ for Dreher. In his case, he simply got too much for his rich benefactor to stomach, which is a whole different kettle of fish.
@James Joyner: Even so… we have “cancel” being applied to a conservative and nary a mention of the term when applied to someone critical of a conservative.
Joking or not, this feeds the narrative about the legitimacy or not of who suffers what consequences for saying what.
@Kazzy: This just isn’t a case of “cancel” or “call-out” culture at work. Indeed, pretty much everyone seems to be rallying around Montgomery here and his reputation within his community is almost certainly enhanced. His employer simply fired him for violating professional standards of decorum. He’ll get another job.
Again, who exactly is accepting DeSantis’ portrayal? Who is looking at the situation and agreeing that the reporter should be fired?
Bad faith actors require a bad faith audience.
Its like how conspiracy theorists and Creationists work, where a science institution or government body is held to the most extreme standards of skepticism, while some ignorant rando is followed and amplified, as an equal.
Who does this persuade? Only people who wanted to be persuaded in the first place.
Its important in political struggles to not pre-emptively cede ground when it doesn’t need to be.
We can just keep pointing out that the reporter was speaking honestly and Politico fired him to appease a governor.
Does it matter if it was poorly worded?
Does it matter if he was peevish, hasty, or unpleasant?
I recognize that. But that isn’t my point. My point is that the right has rallied behind the idea that “cancel culture” is something liberals unfairly subject conservatives to as a ways to suppress their free speech. ONLY liberals do it and they ONLY do it to conservatives and it is ALWAYS wrong when they do. And that narrative has taken root. So even if Montgomery will come out okay from all of this the way these two pieces were framed contributes to a false narrative that is damaging to our society.