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Fla. reporter fired after calling news release on DeSantis event ‘propaganda’

A reporter for Axios in Tampa was fired after calling a Florida Department of Education news release “propaganda.” (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
4 min

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.

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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.

The state legislature’s GOP majority has also proposed a raft of laws that would reshape K-12 and higher education in the state and ban gender studies, limit transgender pronouns and erode tenure.

This is not the first time that the communications team of DeSantis, who has campaigned on a war on “woke,” or his administration has published exchanges with reporters or criticized the news media.

Last April, DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw declined an interview request with The Washington Post and suggested to her Twitter followers that The Post was trying to blackmail her by writing a profile about her. She ultimately offered limited cooperation with the reporter.

Lanfranconi has posted photos of emails and articles from reporters in recent weeks, questioning their work, and wrote that the New Yorker was joining “the list of those endorsing porn in elementary schools” over the magazine’s cover art.

The Florida Department of Education spokesperson and the governor’s communications office did not respond to requests for comments.

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.

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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.”