On Sunday, 60 Minutes ran a 13-minute segment about Florida's distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. The TV newsmagazine reported on several critiques of the rollout that have been widely covered by local news outlets, including the racial divide among the state's vaccinated population and the optics of a vaccination site opening in the wealthy, politically connected community of Lakewood Ranch outside Bradenton in Manatee County.
But the climax of the piece, which focuses on Palm Beach County, was an exchange in which 60 Minutes correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi questioned Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis about the state's partnership with Publix for vaccine distribution after the grocery chain donated $100,000 to the governor's re-election campaign late last year.
"Publix, as you know, donated $100,000 to your campaign and then you rewarded them with the exclusive rights to distribute the vaccination in Palm Beach," Alfonsi asked the governor at a March press conference in Melbourne. "How is that not 'pay to play'?"
In the 60 Minutes clip, DeSantis is shown responding that any suggestion of pay to play is "wrong" and "a fake narrative." But the governor received scant airtime; the TV program noted that he declined to make himself available for a sit-down interview.
Several Florida journalists who've been covering the vaccine rollout criticized the piece after it aired Sunday, but the criticism went national when the right-wing Daily Caller news site posted a video comparing the 60 Minutes clip to raw footage of the Melbourne press conference — at which the governor explained in detail why he felt the Publix controversy is "a fake narrative." That, in turn, compelled 60 Minutes to defend its segment, arguing that its editing was fair. Some still say the TV story was selective and didn't accurately present the facts; the Poynter Institute, a news-ethics organization based in St. Petersburg, said the piece "misses the mark."
DeSantis, naturally, was not too happy about the 60 Minutes story, and he hasn't been shy about saying so. After publicly criticizing the piece on Monday and Tuesday, the governor held a press conference Wednesday to further denounce the segment, giving a PowerPoint-type presentation to reporters, titled "FACTS VS. SMEARS."
"I gave a very detailed answer, and that answer was edited out," he said. "Every single fact that I discussed was edited out."
To understand the controversy, compare the shortened 60 Minutes clip with the governor's full response from the Melbourne press conference.
In the 60 Minutes clip, DeSantis was depicted responding to Alfonsi's question like this:
First of all, what you're saying is wrong. That's a fake narrative. I met with the county mayor, I met with the administrator, I met with all the folks in Palm Beach County and I said, "Here are some of the options: We can do more drive-thru sites, we can give more to hospitals, we can do the Publix," and they said, "We think that would be the easiest thing for our residents."
Alfonsi interrupted: "The criticism is that it's pay to play, governor."
DeSantis appeared to cut her off.
"It's wrong, it's wrong, it's a fake narrative. I just disabused you of the narrative, and you don't care about the facts, because obviously I laid it out for you in a way that is irrefutable, and so it's clearly not."
But in the raw footage from the press conference, which was captured on the public-access Florida Channel, the governor's answer was far more detailed and seems to debunk the pay-to-play theory:
First of all, what you're saying is wrong. That's a fake narrative. So first of all, when we did — the first pharmacies that had it were CVS and Walgreens, and they had a long-term-care mission. So they were going to the long-term-care facilities. They got vaccine in the middle of December. They started going to the long-term-care facilities the third week in December to do LTCs. So that was their mission, that was very important, and we trusted them to do that.
As we got into January, we wanted to expand the distribution points, so yes, you had the counties, you had some drive-thru sites, you had hospitals that were doing a lot, but we wanted to get it into communities more. So we reached out to other retail pharmacies — Publix, Walmart. Obviously, CVS and Walgreens had to finish that mission, and we said we're gonna use you as soon as you're done with that. For the Publix, they were the first one to raise their hand and say they were ready to go, and you know what? We did it on a trial basis.
I had three counties. I actually showed up that weekend and talked to seniors across four different Publix: "How was the experience? Is this good? Should [sic] you think this is the way to go?" And it was 100 percent positive, so we expanded it and then folks liked it. And I can tell you, if we look at a place like Palm Beach County, they were kind of struggling at first in terms of the senior numbers. I met with the county mayor, I met with the administrator, I met with all the folks in Palm Beach County, and I said, "Here are some of the options: We can do more drive-thru sites, we can give more to hospitals, we can do the Publix, we can do this." They calculated that 90 percent of their seniors live within a mile and a half of a Publix, and they said, "We think that would be the easiest thing for our residents."
So we did that and what ended up happening was, you have 65 Publix in Palm Beach. Palm Beach is one of the biggest counties, one of the most elderly counties. We've done almost 75 percent of the seniors in Palm Beach, and the reason is 'cause you have the strong retail footprint. So our way has been multifaceted, it has worked, and we're also now very much expanding CVS and Walgreens now that they've completed the long-term-care mission.
(Alfonsi: "The criticism is that it's pay to play, governor.")
It's wrong, it's wrong, it's a fake narrative. I just disabused you of the narrative, and you don't care about the facts, because obviously I laid it out for you in a way that is irrefutable, and so it's clearly not.
New Times first reported on the Publix donations in mid-January. Campaign-finance reports showed that, at the end of a particularly profitable year for the company, the grocery juggernaut chipped in $100,000 to DeSantis' re-election campaign. The story also made mention of the fact that the governor had recently announced a state partnership with Publix for a vaccine distribution pilot program.
Other news outlets subsequently reported on the donations, placing them in the context of vaccine distribution in their own areas of coverage. In Palm Beach County, for instance, HuffPost noted that Publix is a 40-minute drive from the low-income, majority-Black city of Belle Glade. (That reporting appears to have informed the 60 Minutes segment, which also highlights Belle Glade's distance from Publix.)
While those stories led to speculation of "pay for play," none revealed a proverbial smoking gun — no email chain, no insider source coming forward — that linked the state's vaccine partnership with Publix to the company's political contributions to DeSantis.
In fact, Florida's director of emergency management, Jared Moskowitz, says it was his office, not the governor, that decided to partner with Publix. At the "FACTS VS. SMEARS" press conference Wednesday, Moskowitz — a Democrat — said his first choice for the pilot program was Walmart, but Walmart said it wouldn't be able to get the program up and running for 21 days. Moskowitz says he then called Publix, which said it could be ready in 72 hours.
"That's it. That's the whole story," Moskowitz said. "...I talked to 60 Minutes. They were very nice. We talked for a very long time, but I told them that this Publix narrative was malarkey — and they still went with it."
At Wednesday's press conference, DeSantis noted that, even in the politically divided state of Florida, Democrats like Moskowitz and Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner were disavowing 60 Minutes' reporting.
"Even people that may be on the other side of the aisle from me, when they look at that, they uniformly understand that that was a smear," DeSantis said.
The governor used the opportunity to lament partisan news coverage, calling the 60 Minutes piece "a manufactured conspiracy theory designed to fit a partisan political narrative."
"I do think we're in a situation where, you know, corporate media thinks they can do whatever the hell they want. They think they can smear whoever they want, and they think they can just move on to the next target, and that's bad for our country," he said. "They divide this country on purpose with their partisanship and their fake narratives without worrying about the facts. They came and tried to divide Florida but, fortunately, we have people across the aisle who've been working together this whole time who say, 'You know what? That's bunk. You know what? You're wrong.'"
Of course, for all of DeSantis' calls for a return to the "facts," critics rightly point out that the governor has his own problems with truth-telling (PolitiFact has rated 42 percent of the governor's claims "mostly false," "false," or "pants on fire") and a history of pushing what he himself might call a "partisan political narrative." As Miami filmmaker Evan Rosenfeld recently noted on Twitter, DeSantis was a vocal defender of Donald Trump's false claims of "election fraud" after Trump lost the November 2020 election.
DeSantis: "That's a fake narrative"— Evan Rosenfeld (@evansss) April 6, 2021
Also DeSantis: https://t.co/uLzM2jajTs
In the end, some political commentators believe 60 Minutes' selective quote-editing will become a salient talking point for DeSantis, who has long parroted Trump's protestations about the "fake news media." One CNN piece by Chris Cillizza is headlined, "'60 Minutes just gave Ron DeSantis a massive gift."
"DeSantis couldn't have written this script any better," Cillizza wrote. "He gets oodles more national attention and love from Trump conservatives, all the while being able to bash away at the media. Win, win, win."
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