Another News Outlet Throws An Employee Under The Bus After Right-Wing Outrage
Axios fired reporter Ben Montgomery after a Florida state employee posted one of his emails to Twitter.
Hello readers, and happy Friday.
On Monday afternoon, the Florida Department of Education issued a press release titled, “Governor Ron DeSantis Hosts Roundtable Exposing the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Scam in Higher Education”, a recap of a private event DeSantis and his political allies held earlier that day.1 The release itself was little more than several hundred words of DeSantis and allies saying that DEI is bad… over and over again.2
Ben Montgomery, a journalist at Axios, replied to the email: “This is propaganda, not a press release.” DOE communications director Alex Lanfranconi posted a screenshot of the email to Twitter less than an hour later, tagging both Montgomery and Axios. That evening, Axios fired Montgomery via phone.
Let’s set aside whether that was a smart email for Montgomery to send or not. I can think of arguments on all sides of the issue. I’m less interested in that3, and more interested in the fact that a large news outlet (Axios is certainly large, especially in the world of political news) fired an employee at what was, essentially, the behest of the state government.
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Minutes after Lanfranconi’s tweet went up, DeSantis deputy press secretary Jeremy Redfern responded, “Is this a journalism?” Florida State Board of Education member Ryan Petty joined in, adding, “Journalisming.”
In an interview with Talking Points Memo, Mongtomery touched on (what I believe to be) the larger issue here.
Here's a somewhat lengthy excerpt from's TPM post:
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.”
And then, there’s the flip side, argued by Noah Rothman over at the National Review [emphasis mine]:
The aggrieved reporter insisted that what DeSantis and his fellow Republicans call “media accountability” is far “meaner” and “more personal” than that. Montgomery’s plight isn’t just a tragedy for him and his industry but the entire nation, according to Montgomery. “It’s a sad day for democracy,” he mourned, “and a sad day for all of us.”
Even by modern journalistic standards, the self-aggrandizing sophistry displayed in these remarks has few parallels. It was Montgomery’s behavior that cost him his job, and his employer’s reaction to that behavior isn’t even especially remarkable.
. . .
“This is propaganda,” he wrote in reply to the email, “not a press release.” First off, it was, by definition, a press release. To the extent that its substance appealed to propagandistic rhetoric, that’s a subjective assessment. Subjective assessments are the province of opinion writers. Montgomery later defended himself by asking the public to “read the whole thing” because “it was just a series of quotes about how bad DEI was.” That’s correct. And do you know why? Because it was a press release about a politician’s political initiative.
The banality of it all would be enough to put you to sleep had Montgomery not made himself into the center of what would otherwise not have been a story at all.
DeSantis’s team did help to make it into a national story when Alex Lanfranconi, communications director for Florida’s Department of Education, captured a screenshot of Montgomery’s emailed reply, tweeted it out, and said simply that this was the response he had received from Axios’s reporter. That’s it.
Whether the press release was “propaganda” or not is entirely beside the point. Yes, it was a press release; yes, it (like most press releases) was also a form of propaganda. These aren’t mutually exclusive categories, and the word “propaganda,” while often used in a negative connotation, is really any form of agenda-driven political communications. But again, this isn’t the point.
Rothman’s characterization of Lanfranconi’s tweet, that the state employee had “captured a screenshot of Montgomery’s emailed reply, tweeted it out, and said simply that this was the response he had received from Axios’s reporter. That’s it,” severely downplayed what happened, what the obvious intent of the tweet was (to frame Montgomery as some sort of tremendously biased liberal activist, and to portray Axios as biased). Let’s all stop pretending “that’s it” describes the intent here.
I’m more interested in the ethics of a state employee tweeting out an email from a reporter for political purposes.
Lanfranconi is not part of the Ron DeSantis for Governor campaign (or a Ron DeSantis for President campaign); he is a state employee. Personally, I think he should have just let the email hit his inbox and move on. But DeSantis has turned the state of Florida into his own personal campaign apparatus, so it’s no surprise that Lanfranconi (or anyone else in the state) would employ this sort of nakedly partisan move.