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In the Ron DeSantis story, 60 Minutes accepts innuendo

A dramatic conversation or two is often beneficial to investigative television journalism. CBS's 60 Minutes broadcast a clip from a media event with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a segment about the state's vaccine launch on Sunday (R). Correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi inquired about a coronavirus vaccine distribution agreement between the governor's political action committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, and Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix grocery stores. The partnership came about after the governor's political action committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, collected $100,000 in contributions from the company.

“How is that not a pay-to-play situation?” inquired Alfonsi.

“That is a fabricated narrative,” DeSantis responded — in part. Since the "60 Minutes" segment aired, the governor and CBS News have traded further barbs about issues ranging from video editing to vaccine delivery plans in Palm Beach County.

Florida governor bans Covid-19 'vaccine passports'
Florida governor bans Covid-19 'vaccine passports'

The path to this war started nearly three months ago, when it was revealed that Publix made four different $25,000 contributions to the DeSantis PAC in December. From the Miami New Times, some context: “According to state reports, Publix previously contributed $25,000 to the committee in January 2020 and another $25,000 in November 2019.” The kindness came before DeSantis announced the state's agreement with Publix to open vaccination sites on Jan. 5. Medicare may charge the grocery chain $40 per shot.

While Publix and DeSantis swiftly denied any role in public-health influence peddling, local journalists remained on the story. According to Jeffrey Schweers of the Tallahassee Democrat, "state officials have not issued an arrangement, contract, or even any documents detailing the terms of that relationship — despite the fact that they have given Publix nearly 500,000 doses of the vaccine officials refer to as 'liquid gold.'" In early March, a team of Miami Herald reporters discovered that Publix — not health officials — made critical decisions on how the shots are delivered.

As Florida's media battled pay-for-play claims, "60 Minutes" was on the ground in the state, reporting on a story titled, "How the wealthy crossed the line during Florida's frenetic vaccine rollout." The piece focuses on Palm Beach County, which is “home to some of America's wealthiest retirees but also to some of the poorest day laborers and farm workers.” According to Alfonsi, the state's relationship with Publix exacerbated vaccine access issues for some minority communities living in areas such as Belle Glade, which is more than 25 miles from the nearest Publix store. By February, the study noted, more than 160,000 county residents had been vaccinated, but only 2% of Black residents and 3% of Hispanic residents had been vaccinated.

A well-connected supermarket chain contributes to a Republican governor; secures a lucrative contract to sell vaccines; and in the end, minority senior citizens are shortchanged: That is quite a tale, if the quid pro quo can be established. Despite its extensive coverage of Florida politics, "60 Minutes" was never able to make it there.

However, the show permitted the concept of "pay to play" to make an appearance in the script. Alfonsi approached DeSantis at a news conference after he declined an interview request from the network.

It's one thing to question a politician during a news conference about pay-to-play claims, and more so when the politician declines interview requests. It's another thing to allow the notion to linger in a final report without disclosing fully to viewers what measures, if any, the network took to corroborate the "criticism." Is it possible that it gathered some suspicious emails? Did it make contact with a whistleblower? Who were the decision-makers, and what do they have to say for themselves?

Following the story's airing, some of the information became public, but the majority of it served to bolster the governor. In a news conference with DeSantis on Wednesday, Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management — and a Democrat — disputed the claim. “I made the decision to use Publix in my office,” Moskowitz said. Within 72 hours, the chain was prepared to execute the distribution agreement, weeks earlier than the first company he contacted (Walmart).

"I spoke with '60 Minutes,'" he continued. “They were extremely friendly. We conversed for an extended period of time, but I informed them that the Publix story was bunk, and they continued to believe it.” Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner, another Democrat, chastised "60 Minutes" for airing a "intentionally misleading" investigation, adding that he and the county administrator had petitioned the state to extend the Publix service into Palm Beach County.

County commissioner Melissa McKinlay, on the other hand, denied Kerner's version of events. McKinlay clarified in a statement that her reservations about the arrangement stemmed from the state's decision to make Publix the "exclusive provider of vaccinations in our County." The Palm Beach Post and HuffPost also reported on McKinlay's assertion that Publix was the primary source, and the "60 Minutes" section repeated Alfonsi's assertion that DeSantis had granted the chain "exclusive access" to Palm Beach County.

DeSantis sounded like a man poised to file a complaint during Wednesday's news conference. He referred to a "ridiculous smear story" and said that the network purposefully spread misinformation about his work. “What they did was malicious,” the governor said, referencing a term fundamental to libel law. We inquired with the governor's office about the possibility of a defamation suit. There has been no answer to date.

To refute the "60 Minutes" assertion of exclusive rights, DeSantis outlined numerous vaccine distribution programs led by Moskowitz beyond the Publix channel — a campaign to reach long-term-care patients through CVS and Walgreens, vaccine events in churches, and other projects that came together in a patchwork governmental effort. However, CBS News reports that such non-Publix vaccine delivery efforts "were not available to the majority of seniors in Palm Beach County in January and part of February."

Then there's the issue of network video editing. When Alfonsi questioned DeSantis about the supposed pay-for-play scheme involving Publix, a lengthy back-and-forth ensued about the specifics. As detailed here, the final edit of "60 Minutes" omitted the governor's initial clarification — how the state approached its contracts with CVS and Walgreens pharmacies and how it came to choose Publix. The minutiae did not receive a complete airing on "60 Minutes," as a thorough PolitiFact review demonstrates. DeSantis said on Wednesday that "every single fact that I addressed was omitted."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis fiercely denied accusations of a pay-for-play deal with Publix, which donated $100,000 to his PAC in the weeks before he announced a deal to allow the grocery chain to distribute COVID-19 vaccines in the state.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis fiercely denied accusations of a pay-for-play deal with Publix, which donated $100,000 to his PAC in the weeks before he announced a deal to allow the grocery chain to distribute COVID-19 vaccines in the state.

CBS News, for its part, describes its omission of DeSantis's complete clarification as follows: “While the Governor mentioned CVS and Walgreens, vaccinations did not enter those pharmacies in the Glades until late February for CVS and mid-March for Walgreens, months after the Governor began distributing the vaccine via Publix on January 21, 2021.” That is insufficient for the Erik Wemple Blog: If you're going to propose pay-for-performance, allow the accused to present his defense and rebut it as possible. (A CBS News spokesman previously stated: "As we often do for clarification, 60 MINUTES used the portion of the Governor's over two-minute answer that specifically answered the correspondent's question.")

Omari Hardy, a Democratic state representative from Florida who appears in the "60 Minutes" episode, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that DeSantis' media assault is part of a plan. “He gains from using that as a diversion from the central argument, which is that he abandoned Black people, people of color,” Hardy argues, adding that “no rational individual will ignore questions about pay for play out of hand.”

Real. However, "60 Minutes" is America's investigative powerhouse, precisely the type of agency that investigates those concerns — and either confirms or refutes them. Rather than that, it left them adrift in a cloud of innuendo.