The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

DeSantis enacts voting restrictions touted by Fox News with only Fox News in the room

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks on Fox News on Thursday. (Fox News)

When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) sat down to sign into law his state’s new restrictions on voting in March, he did so behind closed doors — but in front of cameras.

The bill was already a focus of intense controversy, with widespread criticism prompting the removal from the final bill of some of the more onerous changes, such as limits on Sunday voting. So when Kemp signed it into law, he did so relatively quietly, giving a brief statement in defense of the bill before sitting down at a long table to formally enact it.

Outside the room, legislators demanded entry. One, state Rep. Park Cannon (D), was arrested after knocking on the door to the room while demanding to be let in. The law enforcement officer who arrested her later said he was afraid the moment would escalate into a situation like the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

It was not a bright moment for the overlap of transparency and democracy. But, as has happened so many times before, Georgia would soon be one-upped by its neighbor to the south.

On Tuesday morning, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) traveled to West Palm Beach to sign his state’s new voting restrictions into law. Sitting in a hotel near an airport in that city and surrounded by supporters, DeSantis prepared to apply his signature to the bill. But one other bit of business first: Before completing his executive duties, he had to look into the camera in the room and answer questions from the hosts of “Fox & Friends.”

Fox News, it turns out, was the only network allowed to cover the signing from inside the room. That came as a surprise to local journalists, who had arrived to cover the event. South Florida Sun Sentinel columnist Steve Bousquet reported that he was told by a DeSantis spokesman that Fox News was being given exclusive access to the event.

That was confirmed by Jay O’Brien of the city’s CBS-12 — and later by Fox News coverage itself. At about 8:45 a.m., while still being interviewed by the “Fox & Friends” hosts, DeSantis worked the bill-signing into one of his answers before making the case for the new restrictions.

It was a bizarre scene. Yet it was also a perfectly fitting one, given the moment and the issue.

For months, Fox News has stoked the idea that there was something suspect about the 2020 presidential election, picking up on the energy built by Donald Trump’s denial of his reelection loss. There’s been little effort by the network or its allies on the right to counteract the false narrative that the election was riddled with fraud. (In reality, evidence shows only about 16 illegal votes cast nationally.) Instead, they have boosted the idea that concerns about the sanctity of voting are valid and have hosted people who have reinforced that falsehood.

For DeSantis, then, it made perfect sense to restrict his bill-signing to just the media outlet that had indirectly championed it. This was the approach that Trump himself took during his four years in office: remain ensconced in the bubble of right-wing media and supporters, avoid difficult questions or criticism. On Thursday morning, DeSantis — whose presidential aspirations are as subtle as a Miami Beach nightclub — got to speak directly to the heavily Republican viewers of the most-watched network for Republicans to sign into law a bill that the network and other Republicans had told those Republicans was necessary. None of it was interrupted by such unpleasantries as questions from outside reporters.

Or even reporters for Fox News. A Republican being interviewed by “Fox & Friends” tends to have all of the probing tension of a grandmother asking her grandson what he wants for Christmas. DeSantis had a few questions about how well Florida had managed the pandemic placed on a tee in front of him, and he landed each one squarely on the fairway. I mean this sincerely: His team couldn’t have asked for a better landing for the bill. A controversial legislative act became a nationally televised campaign event. It made Kemp’s efforts to lock out criticism seem amateurish.

Among the questions not asked of DeSantis were ones about the effects of the law, which is predicated on false claims and opportunistically boosted concerns about voter fraud. Some experts say the law could actually hurt Republicans in the state, but not even that prompted any concern from the Fox hosts. After signing the bill to the applause of the supporters arrayed behind him, DeSantis held up a placard to read off some bullet points about how great the new law was, earning more applause in the process.

The response from the Fox hosts? They praised his visual aids. The real mystery was why DeSantis chose to give the exclusive to “Fox & Friends” instead of the Fox host who had endorsed his gubernatorial bid, Sean Hannity.

It’s long been the case that Republican legislators have operated within a protective ideological bubble within the conservative media. But that was the safe space, the harbor from the rocky waters of public life. They would still generally deal with critical media coverage or unhappy constituents. On Thursday, DeSantis signed into law new restrictions on voting spurred not by concern about voting in the state — given how he had championed his state’s success on the day after last year’s election — but instead based on his interest in participating in the national narrative about voter fraud that Fox News has helped to foster. He did so on Fox itself, literally locking out local media whose job it is to question DeSantis and to explore how he uses the power his constituents have given him.

It was a political triumph. The same cannot be said for what it represents in governance.

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