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.”
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to TPM’s request for comment on this story.
Montgomery, who has over a decade of experience reporting in Florida, has written four books and was a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist for a series of articles he wrote exposing abuse at a local school. He began working for Axios, where he co-authored a newsletter focused on the Tampa Bay area, in late 2020.
Montgomery found himself in the crosshairs of DeSantis’ team after he sent an email responding to a press release the governor’s office sent out on Monday. The press release was an over 800-word attack “on divisive concepts such as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, Critical Race Theory (CRT).” The bulletin from the governor’s office was branded as part of a series called “Exposing The DEI Scam” and contained a series of quotes from DeSantis and his allies framing diversity efforts as “political indoctrination” promoted by the “woke mob.”
Montgomery, who said he feels “obligated” to read official press releases since they could contain information “that might be useful for my readers,” did not feel this press release from DeSantis fit that category.
“There was no, like, event to cover. It might have been a roundtable at some point, but there was no event that I had been alerted to. … This press release was just a series of quotes about DEI programs, and the ‘scam’ they are, and nothing else,” Montgomery said. “I was frustrated by this. I read the whole thing and my day is very busy.”
Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives have increasingly become a focus for the right wing, as have so-called “critical race theory” educational programs that highlight historical racial issues. DeSantis has made attacking these concepts a major part of his brand. Under DeSantis’ administration, Florida’s Department of Education banned public schools in the state from teaching advanced placement African-American studies, a course the governor called “indoctrination.” Earlier this year, DeSantis tapped Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who admittedly was key to the right-wing push to turn “critical race theory” into a divisive wedge issue, to overhaul the curriculum at one of the state’s public colleges.
Along with being “frustrated” that the press release about diversity and “critical race theory” didn’t contain “news value,” Montgomery said he believed it “used some language that, in my mind, was a little coded to be sort of racially charged.”
“When I hear like … the ‘scam’ of diversity, equity, and inclusion shouldn’t be perpetrated upon the hardworking taxpayers of Florida, it’s like framing it as a Black and white issue,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery responded to the release by emailing DeSantis’ press office a message that said, “This is propaganda, not a press release.”
Alex Lanfranconi, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education, publicized the exchange less than an hour later by tweeting a screengrab of Montgomery’s message.
“I thought it would just pass and it was not anything that was hurtful to me,” Montgomery told TPM. The response to Lanfranconi’s tweet was, at first, “all dumb comments,” he said.
However, on Monday night, roughly five hours after Lanfranconi posted the exchange, Montgomery said he received a call from Axios’ executive editor for local news, Jamie Stockwell.
“I was playing pinball — Godzilla by the way, on a great run. I got a call and checked my phone,” Montgomery recounted.
“She started immediately by asking if I could confirm that I sent that email and I did immediately confirm it,” he continued. “She then sounded like she was reading from a script and she said … ‘Your reputation has been irreparably tarnished in the Tampa Bay area and, because of that, we have to terminate you.’”
On the call, Montgomery said he “objected with my full fucking throat on behalf of every hard-working journalist.” However, he said Stockwell “wasn’t answering any questions.” According to Montgomery, his laptop and access to company email were swiftly shut down.
“I had, unfortunately, interviews lined up for the next couple of weeks so people are going to be sitting on Zoom waiting for me to show up because I don’t know how to reach them now,” said Montgomery. “It sucks. It was quick and it sucks.”
Axios editor-in-chief Sara Kehaulani Goo responded to questions about the situation with a short statement.
“This reporter is no longer with Axios,” Kehaulani Goo said. “Out of respect for our employees, we do not discuss conditions of departure.”
Montgomery believes the company made a “bad decision,” particularly in a climate where DeSantis and other politicians have increasingly attacked the media that covers them. He said it was especially troubling because Axios editors had vowed to “not let the trolls run this newsroom.”
“In a difficult news environment, you need that sort of support. So, at a minimum, don’t fire your reporters in a knee-jerk fashion,” Montgomery said, adding, “We can’t be sheepish right now.”
Despite losing his job, Montgomery said he does not “regret” sending the email to the governor’s office. While Axios prides itself on its “smart brevity” format, Montgomery said that, if he could re-do anything, he would have made the message longer to make it “sharper criticism for a PR professional.”
“As much as I try to practice smart brevity, I normally let my thoughts breathe a little more than that,” Montgomery said. “I probably would have added that what you have assembled here has been a giant waste of time because there’s nothing of news value for the right, or the left, or the in between in what you’ve written.”
Montgomery said he received a call on Wednesday afternoon from Axios co-founder Mike Allen. While Montgomery said Allen “was very, very kind,” the editor apparently “wasn’t up for a conversation.”
“He said, ‘We appreciate what you’ve built … let’s keep in touch,’” Montgomery recounted. “I appreciated hearing that from him. … I still wonder what role he had in the decision. … He didn’t offer me my job back, so he’s standing behind it, I guess.”
Now that he is no longer working at Axios, Montgomery said he hopes to get to work on his next book project.
“I feel pretty good. The last few months I have just kind of been ground down by the daily pace of the newsletter,” Montgomery said, later adding, “I’m sad, honestly, for the profession. … It sucks for me, I’m losing my job, but this is going to suck for Axios. There’s just going to be blowback.”