DeSantis attacks ’60 Minutes’ report on vaccine distribution, threatens action

PANAMA CITY, Fla. – The fallout from a “60 Minutes” report on Florida’s vaccine distribution continued Tuesday when Gov. Ron DeSantis used a news conference to discuss hurricane funding in the Panhandle to attack corporate media and threaten retribution against CBS News.

“60 Minutes” has faced backlash for a story it aired Sunday on DeSantis that also referenced supermarket chain Publix and two prominent Democrats in the state.

The report, which looked at what it called a “chaotic” vaccine rollout in Florida, suggested Publix and DeSantis engaged in a “pay-for-play” arrangement with Publix getting early access to vaccines after the chain donated $100,000 to his political action committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis called the story — which also focused on the inequities of the vaccine distribution in Florida and allegations that DeSantis was discriminating when he hand-picked wealthy communities for pop-up sites across the state — a “piece of horse manure.”

He continued his attack on the report Wednesday during a news conference in Tallahassee and the language he used could be a forerunner to legal action.

“No exclusivity. That was obvious. I said it in my press conference. They edited it out and they refused to put it on the air, but they kept the lie on the air. That’s intentional. That is malicious,” DeSantis said Wednesday.

After the story aired, Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat leaving the state soon, responded with a tweet taking responsibility for the decision to contract with Publix.

Moskowitz said he spoke to “60 Minutes” twice before the story aired, explaining why parts of the story were untrue, but it fell on deaf ears.

“My first choice was Walmart,” Moskowitz said Wednesday.

“I know corporate media thinks that they can just run over people, ya ain’t running over this governor,” DeSantis said. “I’m punching back and I’m going to continue to do it until these smear merchants are held accountable.”

Publix also denied the link.

“The irresponsible suggestion that there was a connection between campaign contributions made to Governor DeSantis and our willingness to join other pharmacies in support of the state’s vaccine distribution efforts is absolutely false and offensive,” Publix said in a statement Monday.

DeSantis said he offered reporters the information they asked for yet they declined to interview key people involved “because they didn’t want to let go the narrative.”

“Well guess what, there’s going to be consequences for that,” DeSantis said, without going into details.

CBS News said it twice asked to interview DeSantis for the story, but he declined, so they showed up at one of his daily news conferences to ask him questions. The fiery exchange at that press conference between DeSantis and CBS News reporter Sharyn Alfonsi has become the focus of criticism, with some saying the exchange was unfairly edited.

A spokesperson for “60 Minutes” defended the story, according to CNN.

In a brief statement, the spokesperson focused on the criticism that it didn’t air the entire encounter between DeSantis and Alfonsi in which he pointed out that CVS and Walgreens were the first pharmacies in the state to distribute vaccines. Though it’s worth noting, CVS and Walgreens got vaccines through the federal program. Publix was the first private business to distribute vaccines through the state.

“As we always do for clarity, 60 Minutes used the portion of the Governor’s over 2-minute response that directly addressed the question from the correspondent,” the spokesperson said.

Conservatives have condemned the segment, according to Fox News.

“CBS clearly made mistakes in professional journalistic judgment in the execution of this story. These are the kinds of mistakes that necessarily happen when enterprise reporting is done with bias and on the basis of pushing a preconceived political narrative,” DePauw University professor and media critic Jeffrey McCall told Fox News.

On Tuesday, DeSantis pointed to the fact that Florida has vaccinated millions of seniors, including a large percentage of seniors in Palm Beach County where the “60 Minutes” story focused its report.

“[’60 Minutes] were warned, and yet they plowed ahead anyways and so we’re going to be doing even more to expose more lies because there’s lies built upon lies on all this,” DeSantis said. “So, this is not over by any stretch of the imagination.”

The state announced in January that Publix, the state’s largest supermarket chain, would have sole vaccine distribution rights in Palm Beach County –- a decision that drew criticism from Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay and some state legislators because the chain has no outlets within 25 miles of the mostly Black, poverty-stricken sugar farming communities in a rural corner of the county that abuts Lake Okeechobee.

About 30,000 people live in Belle Glade and other nearby towns, including about 5,000 residents over 65. McKinlay told The Associated Press and other media outlets at the time that she wasn’t opposed to Publix’s involvement in the distribution effort. She just wanted to make sure Belle Glade residents would have easy access to the vaccine, too.

Within a few days, the state said it would set up a drive-up stand in Belle Glade, just as it had done in numerous wealthier communities across the state.

About 17% of Florida residents are Black, but they make up only 6.5% of the 6.4 million who have received at least one vaccine shot, according to the state. Some of that mirrors a national reluctance among some Black communities to get the vaccine because of past incidents like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study where their ancestors were experimented on by doctors.

Two questions remain unanswered: as a public official, is there a path for legal action? The other: will the Governor call for the firing of those involved in the “60 Minutes” story?

It is generally difficult for public officials to sue a media outlet unless they can prove that a story was wrong, the outlet knew it was wrong and intentionally distributed the story anyway.

About the Author:

Digital reporter who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 25 years and focuses on important local issues like education and the environment.